Scripture Readings: Mark 1-3; John 2-4; Matthew 3-4, 11; Luke 8
Significant Moments in The Story
The ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus – Mark 1, Matthew 3
The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness – Mark 1, Matthew 4
The sign at the wedding in Cana – John 2
The healing of the paralytic – Mark 2
The appointing of the apostles – Mark 3
Nicodemus’ night time visit – John 3
The Samaritan woman at the well – John 4
The exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac – Luke 8
The ministry of John the Baptist
John the Baptist’s ministry is best summarized by his message as described in Matthew 3:2 – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” – and by the act of baptism, described in Mark 1 as an act signifying the forgiveness of sins. Though the Scriptures do indicate that there might have been some early tension between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus (Mark 2:18-20, John 3:25-36), it is clear that John understood his ministry as one of preparing the people to receive “he whom God has sent” (John 3:34). John’s attitude regarding the relationship of his ministry to the ministry of Jesus is best summed up in John’s words in John 3:30 – “He must increase, but I must decrease”. John was most concerned that the people welcome Jesus into their lives and live by the word that Jesus was bringing.
In Matthew 11, Jesus will associate John the Baptist with the coming of Elijah foretold by the prophet Malachi (Malachi 4:5). All of the gospel writers portray John’s ministry as part of the will of God that had been foretold by the prophets.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River and the declaration by the voice from heaven are vital moments for several reasons. First, and foremost, the story affirms Jesus as the Son of God, establishing the identity and giving us a context to understand everything that he will say and do following this moment. Second, the connection between the baptism event and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness should not be ignored. Immediately after the voice from heaven affirms “this is my beloved Son”, Jesus faces Satan who challenges him three times, “If you are the Son of God …”. Jesus’ ministry will be filled not only with miracles and conversions but also with controversy and conflict. Early on, we are being told that the attacks on Jesus by various groups are a paralleled by a cosmic conflict that Jesus is fighting against the powers of Satan. Perhaps the miracles of exorcism (Luke 8, for example) bring this most clearly into focus. Jesus is not just a great teacher facing down those who disagree with him, he is the Son of God who is confronting the power of sin and evil itself.
God’s invitation to join in His work
Once again, as Jesus calls others to follow him and as he appoints twelve as his apostles, we see that God continues to invite humanity to join Him in the working out of His will in creation. At this point, this should not be anything new or surprising to us. However, it does remind us that our Christian faith is not just a matter of attendance in church. As Christians, we are those who have heard the call of Christ and accepted the invitation to travel with him throughout this world and teach and heal in his name.
The phrase “born again” has become almost cliche in American Christianity. Yet, as we look at the gospel accounts of Christ, we see that Jesus’ description of being “born again” or “born anew” or “born from above” is an apt description of the life that he is inviting people to live. This “born again” life is indeed a complete transformation of the person – see the stories of the woman at the well in John 4 and the story of the paralyzed man in Mark 2. We should open our eyes to read these gospel stories with fresh eyes and ears and allow ourselves to ask the question that Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? How can these things be?”
Baptism of repentance – Mark 1:4
Though we often think of baptism as an act of New Testament Christianity, the concept of purification through water was not a new development. In Leviticus, we see several instances where those who were dealing with various ailments that marked them as unclean were instructed to go and bathe as a sign of their purification. The apocryphal book of Judith describes how the heroine went out each night to bathe and pray and returned “purified”. Though a theology of baptism may not have been popularly in place, the use of water in acts of purification was a familiar concept.
Satan – Mark 1:13
The figure of Satan is not one we see specifically named in the Old Testament until much later writings. The name means “adversary” or “accuser”.
Kingdom of God – Mark 1:15
Recent works by the noted New Testament scholar and historian N.T. Wright have brought back into focus the centrality of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, in Jesus’ message. Wright points out that the primary thrust of Jesus’ message was not a proclamation of eternal life but the announcement of the coming of God’s kingdom, when the powers of sin and death are defeated and God is revealed as the ruler of all creation. Wright’s point is to remind the church today that Christ is primarily concerned with this world, not the next. He believes that his message and ministry has implications for the world in the here and now. The invitation of John the Baptist and Jesus to repent is an invitation to return to the one true king, God. This call would echo the call of the prophets, who implored Israel to turn from seeking after other earthly powers and false gods and return to the one and only God of Israel.
Synagogue – Mark 1:21
The synagogue was a house of prayer where Jews would come together to hear the Scripture read and interpreted and join in prayer and song. The synagogue was a development of post-exilic Judaism as Israel sought to understand what it meant to be God’s people apart from the Temple. This search led to increased emphasis on the people studying the Scripture and praying together. Though the Temple is still important for the Jews in the time of Jesus, the presence of the synagogues reveals what the future of Judaism will look like after the final destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.
Son of Man – Mark 2:10
Originally, the title of “son of man” was another way of saying “human being”. However, in Daniel 7, we see the phrase used to describe one who was to come and have everlasting dominion over all peoples. Thus, the term began to carry Messianic overtones. Jesus’ use of the term perhaps draws on both meanings, shining light on both his humanity as well as his identification with the expectations of the Messiah as one who has been given authority over all mankind. In the setting of this story in Mark 2, Jesus is asserting that he has the authority to forgive the sins of the paralyzed man.
Tax collectors and sinners – Mark 2:15
Nobody likes paying taxes, but the animosity with which tax collectors were viewed was about more than just a resentment of taxes. The tax collectors collected tolls on goods coming across the borders. As long as they had enough to pay the taxes promised in their contracts with the authorities, they were free to charge whatever rates they wanted and keep the excess for themselves. Many tax collectors made themselves wealthy charging exorbitant fees, and thus they were despised by the people for their perceived dishonesty. As far as the label of “sinners”, some wonder if this is a reference to Jews who did not strictly adhere to the dietary laws, especially since this is a story of Jesus and his dining companions. What is clear is that the people that Jesus is dining with are not people that the scribes and Pharisees would have chosen to associate with.
“Stretch out your hand” – Mark 3:5
It is interesting to note that Jesus does nothing in this story other than speak. Thus, even as he questions the meaning of the Sabbath laws, is he still abiding by the restriction against work?
“The first of his signs” – John 2:11
The gospel of John consistently refers to Jesus’ miracles as “signs”. In other words, these events are not to be understood simply at the level of what takes place. Instead, they should also be read and heard with an understanding that they are revealing something much deeper. In other words, these signs are pointing us to a better understanding of who Jesus is and what he has come to teach us about the kingdom of God. In that light, it is interesting to consider that the first sign Jesus performs in John’s gospel is not a healing or an exorcism but the transformation of water into wine to allow a wedding celebration to continue. What might this sign be revealing about the nature of God and His kingdom?
Jesus in the Temple – John 2:13-16
The presence of merchants selling animals and changing money in the Temple was not simply a matter of commerce and economics. Merchants sold unblemished animals in the Temple court so that people could make proper and acceptable sacrifices. The money changers exchanged foreign currencies for currency that was acceptable to pay the Temple tax (Exodus 30:11-16). Thus, Jesus’ actions, during the high point of Passover, severely disrupt the ability of the people to worship in the Temple. And that may be exactly what Jesus was trying to do. By challenging the very authority of the Temple and its administration, Jesus was inviting to see the presence of God in their midst through his words and actions. Thus, the connection of this story to his resurrection (John 2:19-22). The story presents a challenge to us, the reader, today: can we get so locked into customs and rituals that we become more concerned with maintaining an institution than with the presence and Word of God in our midst?
Samaritans – John 4
The Samaritans were descendants of two groups: remnants of the ten northern tribes of Israel who were not deported by Assyria and foreign colonists brought into the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrian Empire. In Ezra 4, it is these peoples who opposed the rebuilding of the Temple, thus setting the stage for the tension between Samaritans and Jews.
John the Baptist’s clothing – Matthew 3:4
“Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist …”. This description of John echoes the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 – “… a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.”
The country of the Gerasenes – Luke 8:26
There is some discrepancy as to the exact area that this story takes place. However, in general, it is believed that this is a Gentile region. Thus, this story serves, in part, as a foreshadowing of the sharing of the gospel with the Gentiles.