The divine identity of Jesus. Mark 1:1-3

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 –

Isaiah 40:3

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 –

Malachi 3:1

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 –

Conclusion

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]

The one who comes before the Lord. Mark 1:1-8

Series: Markan prologue

The literary structure of Mark 1:1-15

(Rewritten)

We’re beginning a new series today on the Gospel of Mark. A few things about Mark to begin with. It was most likely the first gospel written. And it likely contains the stories and teachings of Jesus that the apostle Peter passed down [Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses] and John Mark (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13-14; 15:37-40; Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11) later wrote out. These things are likely, I think, but they’re not from Scripture.

With regard to the Gospel itself, a few observations:

  • It’s fast paced. “Immediately” seems to be one of Mark’s favorite words.
  • Its stories are usually longer with more vivid details than Matthew or Luke.
  • And yet it’s the shortest Gospel, because it has less teaching material in it than either Matthew or Luke.

We begin with Mark’s introduction which covers the first 15 verses of the book. Notice that it’s bracketed by the phrase “good news” (or Gospel) in v. 1 and in vs. 14-15 (2x). And both of these sections have elements of timing in them – “the beginning” in v. 1 and “the time is fulfilled” and the kingdom is “at hand” in vs 14-15.

The whole introduction turns on the first three verses, which contain a prophetic word that a messenger is to come first, and then the Lord will come. [This sequence is reinforced in v. 7 by John’s message, “after me” he will come.]

Alright, let’s jump in.

Mark 1:1-8

The first phrase

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the anointed one, the Son of God –

When Mark says, “the beginning,” this has to do with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, following John the Baptist’s work of preparation [see Acts 10:37]. But it can also refer to the whole Gospel. Mark is saying, this is how the Christian movement began.

We learn several things here about who Jesus is. 1) He is the “Christ.” This is the Greek version of the Hebrew word which means “Messiah” or more literally “the anointed one,” which is what I’m going with. This refers back to the Old Testament practice of anointing someone with oil when they are commissioned by God to do something. It was especially connected to the expected son of David who would come as the anointed one, to save God’s people.

2) Jesus is the “son of God.” This phrase is most often associated with the kings of Israel (2 Samuel 7:13-14; Psalm 2:7; Psalm 89:26-27), and sometimes Israel itself (Exodus 4:22-23; Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 31:9, 20). It can also refer to divine beings or angels (e.g. the sons of God in Job). Basically it means one who rules, although we will see that Jesus is God’s son in unique and special way (e.g. Mark 1:11; 14:61-62).

3) Finally the phrase “good news” tells us something about Jesus. In Isaiah it refers to the coming of God to save Israel and to establish his rule or kingdom (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 61:1). In the Roman world it was used to announce the success of an Emperor or the birth of a new Emperor. In both contexts it is a royal announcement. And so this tells us that Jesus is a king.

By means of his introduction Mark gives his readers the privilege to know a good bit about who Jesus is before the story begins, while the people in the story struggle to understand who Jesus is, to the end.

The prophecy

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.’”

This is the only place in all of Mark that he quotes Scripture. And, of course, this happens right at the beginning of his Gospel. So this is really important.

Although Mark says, “as it is written in Isaiah,” he is actually quoting two (or more) passages. This is just how they sometimes did things at this time, combining passages like this and just using one name.

Let’s look at the two key quotes here in reverse order. Isaiah 40:3 says in part, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.’” (LXX). In context this refers to the announcement, by the voice, of the end of exile in Babylon and God’s promise to bring Israel back to its land. This is framed by Isaiah as a second Exodus from Babylon to the land of Israel. [The path here is God’s, but like with the original Exodus, it is God and his people who journey together to the land. The Isaiah Targum speaks of the way of God and the congregation of our God.] [Mark’s quote here can also be translated to match the parallelism of the Hebrew version – “A voice cries ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Witherington]

And then we have Malachi 3:1 which says in part, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” [Mark’s version is a little different, which we will look at later]. This person is further identified in Malachi 4:5-6 as Elijah, who is commissioned to bring about repentance in Israel before God comes to visit them.

In Mark’s narrative, John the Baptist is the messenger, as we will see today. But also Jesus is the Lord who comes. In both passages God comes after the messenger. This, then is an amazing statement about Jesus’ divine identity, which we will come back to in a later message.

Now, by quoting these passages we get Mark’s insight into what’s going on with the coming of John the Baptist and then Jesus. As I said, Isaiah speaks of a second Exodus out of exile back to the land. And several prophets spoke of how things would radically change; how God would reign in glory in a splendid temple and Israel would be established in the land and at peace. Well, the people came back, but they struggled, still under Gentile rule, the Persians, and still with no sense that anything had really changed. So there was disillusionment.

Well, the book of Malachi picks up in this context. He tells the people that the holdup on the fulfillment of the promises is due to their sin. And so he predicts that God will send a messenger, Elijah to prepare Israel for his coming in power to reign. And he is to prepare them by calling them to repentance so that when God comes, it won’t end in further judgment. [I am indebted to Rikk Watts for this construal of Malachi’s role.]

So Mark is saying – this is what’s going on with the coming of John and then Jesus. God is working to bring about his kingdom; to fulfill his promises to his people of salvation and blessing.

The fulfillment – John in the wilderness 

After the prediction of the messenger who will first prepare the way, John shows up doing just this.

4John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Now, not everyone came, of course, but Mark is emphasizing his success.

The connection between the messenger and John is clear. The messenger is to prepare the way, which includes calling for repentance on the part of Israel (Malachi 4:15-16). And John calls the people to repentance.

Also, the messenger is associated with the wilderness as is Elijah.  Well, John is in the wilderness and he is telling people to prepare the way.

And then we have v. 6.

6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.

The messenger is identified as Elijah in some sense and John looks just like Elijah. In 2 Kings 1:8 someone describes Elijah in this way: “He wore a garment of hair with a belt of leather around his waist.” As Jesus says later in Mark 9:13, “Elijah has come” and he is referring to John the Baptist. (See also Luke 1:17).

Notice how what John is doing fits with Isaiah and Malachi’s vision of the need to prepare the people for the coming of God. In the first exodus, Israel crossed through the Red Sea. And then with Joshua the Jordan river. John is symbolically having Israelites go through the waters again (here the Jordan river.) So John is calling Israel to be reconstituted as a new people, ready for the coming of God. And since the leaders in Jerusalem rejected him, he is calling out a remnant to make them ready for the Lord. All of this points to the fulfillment of the promise of the prophets about Israel’s salvation. It all fits together.

The fulfillment – John’s message

7And he 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. 8I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

A key part of John’s ministry was calling people to be ready for the coming one (Matthew 11:3, Acts 13:25). He describes him as the mighty one.

There’s a Jewish saying that a disciple is to act as a slave to their teacher, except for taking off their sandals (b. Ketub. 96a). But here John is saying he is not fit even to do this slave work for the mighty one.

John also speaks of the coming one as the Spirit baptizer. The one who will inundate people with the Spirit, like he does with water.

This has reference to several promises God makes to his people in the Old Testament:

  • Joel 2:28-29 – “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”
  • Ezekiel 36:27 – “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
  • Isaiah 44:3 – “I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.”

John’s water baptism was preparatory. The coming One’s Spirit baptism brings the reality of the promises.

What do we learn?

This teaches us about God’s plans. They are from of old. This was all pointed to by the prophets, Isaiah and Malachi and repeated by John. God’s plans are orderly. The messenger come first to prepare and after this comes the Lord to bring salvation. God’s plans are sure and true. It came to pass just as it was supposed to, which is the story Mark is telling us about. This should lead us to trust in God’s full outworking of his plan to bring it all to completion, as we wait our Lord’s second coming.

And speaking of his coming, we need to continue to be prepared for God’s coming to us. Are we single mindedly focused on God and serving him? Or are we off following the world, waiting time, focused on this life and not finishing the mission he gave us to expand his kingdom? Are you prepared? He could come at any time.