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The Politics of the Individual—Mark 1:4-11 (Alastair Roberts)

15-01-11 - The Preaching of John the Baptist

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

While Matthew and Luke begin with nativity stories and John begins with the Word that pre-existed creation, in the gospel of Mark we find ourselves immediately plunged into the action: a desert prophet named John is baptizing on the banks of the Jordan. Mark’s sudden beginning and abrupt ending may leave many of his readers somewhat disoriented. However, the evangelist has not left us without any bearings. What he has given us is a quotation, a person, and a location. For those who are aware of the significance of these elements in conjunction, Mark’s introduction to his gospel has—with an admirable economy of strokes—deftly set the scene for an incredible drama.

The quotation—while not included in today’s lection—is a composite of a few texts: Malachi 3:1, Exodus 23:20, and Isaiah 40:3. Mark weaves together these threads of Old Testament prophecy into a scripturally resonant declaration of the new exodus and Israel’s restoration, allusively identifying the parts played by both John and Jesus within this drama (as Richard Hays observes, by presenting John as the one preparing the way of the Lord, Mark makes an ‘implicit claim about Jesus’ divine status’[1]).

The person is John the Baptist—the voice of one crying in the wilderness, the advance messenger of YHWH’s return to Zion. It might surprise some readers that Mark, so terse in much of his narration, should needlessly expend words describing John’s clothing and diet. However, once again, these seemingly extraneous details are carefully chosen. They have the effect of placing John within a rich web of scriptural associations and symbolism. John is most immediately connected to the character of Elijah, who was also a desert prophet who wore a leather belt and a hairy garment (2 Kings 1:8; cf. Zechariah 13:4). John is also associated with the camel, an unclean desert animal, and with foods that are evocative of both the blessings of the land (wild honey) and the threatening opponents of Israel (locusts).

Finally, Mark places us in the wilderness on the far side of the Jordan. To any attentive reader of the Old Testament, the location of the action with which Mark’s gospel begins will be noteworthy. The Jordan River and its crossing played a crucial role in the formation of Israel’s identity and within its history. It was at the crossing of the Jabbok, a tributary of the Jordan, that Israel first received its name (Genesis 32:22-32). It was the miraculous crossing of the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua that marked the definitive entry of Israel into the Promised Land after their period of wilderness wandering. The location of John’s baptism necessitated a large number of Israelites symbolically leaving and re-entering the land through the Jordan’s waters. In the Jordan they were placed within the waters of Israel’s drama, reconnected with it in a place where in a large multitude’s penitence the pangs of a promise nearing its realization were experienced and a people approached the moment of its rebirth.

The banks of the Jordan were also a place of transition and succession. It was at the Jordan that Moses passed the baton of leadership to Joshua, Moses’ preparatory desert ministry being succeeded by the mission of Joshua within the Promised Land. It was at the Jordan in 2 Kings 2 that the desert prophet Elijah passed the baton of his prophetic mission to Elisha, a prophet who worked many wonders in the land. When John the Baptist, who is strongly associated with Elijah, is introduced to us on the banks of the Jordan, in connection with Mark’s Old Testament citation, we know that the stage is set for a dramatic new period of ministry to commence. The dryness of the desert will be left behind for the opened heavens and Spirit’s descent upon a new blessed land.

John and those baptized by him are the vanguard of the great return of YHWH to Zion, a return that begins with the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus comes up from the water, like the land drawn from the sea at creation, the Spirit descending upon him like Noah’s dove, the firstfruits of a new world’s emergence from its watery womb. It is Jesus in whom YHWH’s surprising return to his people is being accomplished.

Once we have recognized the Old Testament backdrop against which Mark’s narrative is placed, the significance of the events within it assumes a greater clarity. John’s baptism isn’t merely a generic cleansing ritual, but evokes the formative water-crossings of Israel’s history. While John’s baptism might be interpreted by some as occurring chiefly in service of an elevated individual spirituality whipped up by tumultuous times, its location is pregnant with the promise of a new beginning in Israel’s history. It is through Mark’s shrewd choice and deployment of his Old Testament citations and allusions that the national and political significance of the events he recounts appear to his readers.

The political and social disruption and unsettling occasioned by John’s prophetic ministry has been widely recognized. John directly challenges the establishment figures of Israel. Some have suggested that John’s ministry of baptism of repentance for the remission of sins puts him in competition with the established ministry of the temple and its authorities. John also speaks out against King Herod’s adultery and forfeits his life as a result (Mark 6:17-29—there is a suggestive parallel between the relationship between the characters of Herod, Herodias, and John in Mark and that between Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah in 1 Kings).

The political significance of John’s action of baptism, however, needs to be more deeply appreciated than it often has been. John’s baptism is a prophetically symbolic act whereby the nation is renewed in preparation for YHWH’s return. It establishes a division within the nation with respect to the nation’s foundational identity and destiny. It troubles and challenges the establishment’s claims to represent and secure these things for Israel. It brings members of the nation back to a source from which its communal life can be reformed. Prophets such as Elijah and Elisha were not only the bringers of a message to their nation, but established and led communities of renewal and challenge within it. John the Baptist and Jesus operate in the same way.

Oliver O’Donovan has remarked upon the way that, in moments of national crisis in Israel’s history, the prophetic summons to the individual often comes to the fore. He observes:

[W]e may say that the conscience of the individual members of a community is a repository of the moral understanding which shaped it, and may serve to perpetuate it in a crisis of collapsing morale or institution. It is not as bearer of his own primitive pre-social or pre-political rights that the individual demands the respect of the community, but as the bearer of a social understanding which recalls the formative self-understanding of the community itself. The conscientious individual speaks with society’s own forgotten voice.[2]

The Israelites who came to be baptized by John were performing such a role. In the face of corrupt leaders and institutions, these common people bore the identity of Israel in themselves, returning to the banks of the Jordan River so that they might be restored and re-established as a people in God’s favour. Most importantly, it was as the great individual bearer of Israel’s identity and destiny that Jesus himself was baptized.

Accustomed as we are to thinking in terms of an individual-state polarity, it can be difficult for us to recover the political significance—and responsibility—of the individual as the bearer of the social understanding. We too readily cede custody and responsibility for the preservation of our national and social understanding and character to public institutions and state agencies and forget that we are also entrusted with it as individuals. When our societies decay or disintegrate, as individuals we can shear off into fractured groups, cut loose from any deeper shared identity and life beyond ourselves. Alternatively, we can remain to give voice to our jeremiads from the sidelines, deeming our accountability discharged in the provision of cultural critique or lament over national apostasy or declension.

As we read the beginning of Mark’s gospel, it might be worth considering what sites and sources of communal and national identity are the equivalent of the banks of the Jordan for us. Where might we as individuals recover the lost or compromised self-understanding of our communities? How can we forge communities of renewal, from which the life of our wider societies can draw new strength? How can we actively take responsibility as individuals for the health and wellbeing of our communities? How might we as individuals make the paths of the Lord straight within the places and societies where we find ourselves? How can we prepare the way for and proclaim the Lord’s arrival into our common life? As individuals we have been formed and shaped by our societies and communities: through our committed action, memory, and hope, we can be the means of their renewal.


[1] Richard Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014), 21.
[2] Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 80.

(3) Comments

  1. I don’t understand the logic of making the jump from National Israel to our own particular and individual nations. The Bible gives us tools to think of an alternative community, namely the Church, and not in how to retool and create a Christendom. The Renewal of Israel does not theologically comport to the renewal of the US or the UK, neither of these are covenant nations. Instead, they are beasts that the Lord uses, and throws out, as He sees fit.

    Seek the Peace, but that is a world apart from talk of John the Forerunner.

  2. No, the US and the UK are not covenant nations like Israel. However, individuals can still be the bearers of their societies’ self-understanding and the means of their societies’ renewal. This capacity and responsibility of the individual is one of the means in which we can bring the life of Christ to our contexts. The point is not to draw an analogy between Israel and our nations, but to recognize the significance of the relationship that the individual can sustain with the body politic—a relationship revealed in Mark 1—in contradistinction to the more restrictive visions of modern thought.

  3. Surely that is exactly what we are ‘nations like Israel’. Certainly Israel has a special place but God’s engagement with Israel shows how he deals with nations. God uses nations to punish or support Israel in the OT and even calls them his servants. Paul carries this on in Romans 13: ‘Everyone must obey state authorities, because no authority exists without God’s permission, and the existing authorities have been put there by God.
    We need to wrestle with what it means to be a nation now in the light of Israel’s experience, that is why we need to hold our leaders to account as John the Baptist did.

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