Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)
The Baptism & Temptation of Jesus
9 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.”
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Despite Mark being succinct as he tends to be, this passage is extremely dense and fully loaded. Everything about it seems so holy and mysterious.
It feels like Jesus is on a pilgrimage of sorts. He is at least 60 miles away from his home when he encounters John and humbles himself to be baptised by him. A hugely symbolic act.
The choice of the Spirit to be described as dove-like is significant. In the Babylonian Talmud, the Spirit of God that hovers over the waters at creation is likened to a dove: “And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters— like a dove which hovers over her young without touching [them]”.
The Spirit hovering before creation. A new beginning of sorts. Much like Noah receiving the sign of a new beginning from a dove. The word ‘parting’ doesn’t do great justice to what happens to the heavens here. The word is schizomenous which means split. Mark no doubt referencing Isaiah 64:1:
“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down”.
It’s not a parting that can be closed, it is a tearing that remains open. The phrase can be overused in some circles but it insinuates an ‘open heavens’; a direct access, a movement from God towards us. Isaiah's prayer is answered in a stunning way.
What transpires next is one of my favourite verses:
“You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus hasn’t set out on his ‘ministry’ yet. No doubt he has been ministering all his life but the most significant 3 and a half years haven’t happened yet and here we have Abba affirming him, just for him. It’s all we want to hear. We want to hear that we are loved and that someone is proud of us despite what we have or haven’t done. Jesus, just being a son is told he pleases his Father who loves him. Notice that when we get to the temptations in Luke, the first thing The Satan says to Jesus is ‘If you are the Son…’; he tries to rob him of this beautiful affirming moment.
I remember finding it so odd what happens next, Jesus is driven in to the wilderness by the Spirit. The wilderness is a place most of us run from, despite the fact that really the wilderness is a place we can’t avoid. We all go through it, to some extent or another. My Rabbi friend told me that the Hebrew word midbar, wilderness, has the same root as the word dabar/davar, meaning “word” or “thing.” It has the same letters as medabber, “speaking.” The desert is the place where God speaks. The wilderness is a place that seems to be of no value to men but of supreme value to God. There is something about the desert in what seems to be its bleakness that reveals it was just made to be itself. There is little, if nothing, about it that can be transformed by man in to a commodity. We love to do that with sacred things; we turn them in to an empire or we turn them into something we can sell; the desert can’t do that because no one really wants to go there. It feels like it would make sense then that this is a place where man would go to dwell to sit with himself and be dependant on just God. A place to be for 40 days. 40 being a significant number often symbolising a new birth (pregnancy lasts for 40 weeks, Israel were in the desert for 40 years, it rained 40 days before Noahs journey, Moses spent 40 days on Sanai before receiving the commandments and so on).
The meaning of the temptations feels too long to get into for this short post but we know that Jesus was tempted with provision for himself and others apart from spiritual needs. He was tempted with spectacle and a easy way to ‘prove’ he was God. He was also tempted with political power; violence if you will. I’m not sure if it’s irony but it is fascinating that Jesus did provide, but not without feeding the soul too. He also performed miracles but never to prove himself; it was always out of compassion. And Jesus did indeed become King, but it was by laying down his life and dying for his enemies rather than killing them. The Jesus way and the kingdom of God is a yielding of our will to what Abba wants. It’s not about our agenda, it’s about His. It’s why Lent can be so significant. Can we let the parts in us that need to die, die so as to be reborn in to what it is to follow the narrow path of Jesus. Can we allow God to speak to us in our wilderness or may we choose to use this season of Lent to allow the Spirit to lead us to a place where God can and will speak to us.
Ferg Breen is married with two kids and is a counsellor, psychotherapist, lecturer and pastor in Dublin. He also performs motivational seminars inspired solely by the work of David Brent.