The kingdom at hand: response

john-the-baptist1 In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea 2 (and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Our Response:  What should be our response to the coming of heaven? Should it be worship, praise and giving thanks? Ironically, those are good responses, but in Matthew’s gospel, not the ideal ones. Jesus never reprimands people for failing to worship or give thanks in this gospel (compare Luke 17:17-18), but he does rebuke those who have witnessed his mighty works and not repented (11:20-24). For Matthew, the ideal response seems to be repentance. We know from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew that people can worship God with their lips even when their deeds demonstrate that their hearts are far from God (15:3-9). Thus, the responsive worship of the crowds in 9:8 and 15:31 is commendable but will be in vain if performed with unrepentant hearts.  It is Matthew’s warning to the overtly religious of his day, the Pharisees and Sadducees – and perhaps to us in this season of Advent – it is good to want to celebrate and praise, but make your priority repentance.  Let the coming one change our lives. Continue reading

The kingdom at hand: herald

john-the-baptist1 In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea 2 (and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” 3 It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:“A voice of one crying out in the desert,‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”  4 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. Continue reading

The kingdom at hand: context

john-the-baptist1 In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea 2 (and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” 3 It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A voice of one crying out in the desert,‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”  4 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. Continue reading


TheAnnunciationSimilar, yet… In many respects our gospel (Luke 1:26-38) is similar to the annunciation of the birth of John. The angel Gabriel appears to announce the birth of the child, and the annunciation follows the pattern of birth annunciations in the OT: The angel says, “Do not be afraid,” calls the recipient of the vision by name, assures him or her of God’s favor, announces the birth of the child, discloses the name of the child to be born, and reveals the future role of the child in language drawn from the Scriptures. After their respective announcements, Zechariah and Mary each ask a question, a sign is given, and the scene closes with a departure. The similarity of structure and content between the two scenes invites the reader to consider the differences between them all the more closely. For example, the first announcement came as an answer to fervent prayer; the second was completely unanticipated. John would be born to parents past the age of child bearing, but the miracle of Jesus’ birth would be even greater. Jesus would be born to a virgin. The announcement of Jesus’ future role also shows that at every point Jesus would be even greater than his forerunner. Watch how these nuances are developed in the course of the details of this scene. Note this narrative comparison also punctuates the beginning of Mark’s gospel which has no infancy narrative: John the Baptist is not the Christ, not Elijah, not the prophet to come, and not worthy to loosen the strap of the sandal of the one who is to come. Continue reading

The Annunciation – context

TheAnnunciationLuke 1:26-38  26 In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, 33 and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” 35 And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. 36 And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; 37 for nothing will be impossible for God.” 38 Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Context. From the beginning of the Gospel according to Luke:

1:1 Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, 3 I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.

The preface to the Gospel of Luke’s begins with the Greek (epeidēper) indicating a formal and important undertaking. And well Luke should write such as he intends to write of the things that God has fulfilled among the believers (among us). It establishes that the good news is already planted – not only in that others have already written their gospels – but that this is living tradition (handed down) among the community. These things have been fulfilled by God and part of his faithfulness to his promises.

Luke 1:5-2:52 forms the section referred to as the “Infancy Narratives.” Luke’s account of the conception, birth, and infancy of Jesus is one of his finest narratives. The Gospel of Mark, one of Luke’s sources does not have an infancy narrative to guide him. The Gospel of Matthew has an infancy narrative, but there is every indication that Luke and Matthew had no knowledge of each other’s work. Rather, they composed their accounts separately at a time when the church was reflecting back beyond Jesus’ public ministry to his earthly beginnings.

The traditional preaching outline began with Jesus’ baptism (as is evident in the sermons of Peter and Paul in Acts, and in the structure of Mark’s Gospel). The infancy stories were added to the front of that outline to serve as a prologue to the main narrative. A prologue announces the themes to be pursued in the body of the work. Both Luke and Matthew proclaim the good news in advance in a kind of mini-gospel based on the birth and infancy of Jesus. If Luke’s infancy narrative had been lost before his Gospel began to circulate, we wouldn’t know it had existed, because there are no clear references back to these chapters in the later account of the public ministry. But the reverse is not true — there are many references forward to the later developments. What we know about the infant Jesus comes from the teaching of the adult Jesus and the early church’s reflection on his life, death, and resurrection. Who is this child? He is Messiah and Lord (Acts 2:36). What does his coming mean? He will save his people from their sins (Luke 24:47). A reader’s understanding of the prologue depends on his or her understanding of the rest of the book. It means much more when read a second or third time after the entire book has been read. The infancy narrative grows in meaning the more the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus resound in the faith of the reader.

The immediate context of our passage is one of announcements:

  • Luke 1:5-25: Announcement of John’s birth
  • Luke 1:26-38: The Annunciation of Jesus’ birth

The next scene opens as though it will continue to tell of the birth of the child promised to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Instead, it tells of a greater miracle and the birth of one who would be even greater than John.

Photo credit: “The Annunciation” by Daniel Bonnell

What can you say about yourself?

john-the-baptistThe questioners from Jerusalem were in a difficult position. So far all they had elicited from John had been a string of denials; they had no positive statement to put in their report. Yet John was preaching, drawing crowds in the wilderness, and baptizing. They must have something to say about him. So they turn the matter over to John. Instead of making another suggestion they ask him what he thinks about himself. They must have some answer to take back to those who had sent them. Continue reading

The Testimony of John

john-the-baptistJohn’s testimony to Jesus will lead others to faith, but it is also offered as evidence in a trial. John’s interrogators in this passage are not curious passersby, but are a delegation sent by official Judaism (vv. 19, 22). The expression “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi, v. 19) occurs repeatedly in the Fourth Gospel and has a wide range of meanings. Its most common usage, as in v.19, is as a synonym for the Jewish religious establishment, which is the source of most of the opposition to Jesus’ ministry in John. Here it likely refers to representative from Jerusalem leadership who quite naturally are going to make inquiries about what may well be a new religious movement – especially if there are messianic claims. There was a history of such movements and claims leading to religious disappointment and political ruin. Once John the Baptist acquired a following, the questions were sure to come. The first one was simple and straight forward. Continue reading

Sent from God

john-the-baptistA man named John was sent from God (v.6) Into this overarching narrative of the grand plan of salvation, we have the curious insertion of John the Baptist. We should note that this fourth gospel never uses the moniker “the Baptist” or “the Baptizer” – in fact John is never called the “forerunner” or “herald.” John has one role and one role only: witness (v.7). Leon Morris suggests that this is a response to a late 1st century controversy about the role and place of John the Baptist in the story of Christianity. “We should recall that some had baptized in John’s name as far afield as Ephesus (Acts 19:3), and they may have gone further. The great Apollos is first introduced as one who “knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). Our author does not enter directly into controversy with such people, but he insists more than any of the other Evangelists on the subordinate place of the Baptist. One of the aims of this Gospel plainly was to show how clearly and consistently John had pointed people to Jesus.” (Morris, 78) John the Evangelist does not directly confront the claims of the Baptist’s followers, but he insists more than any of the other Evangelists on the subordinate place of the Baptist. One of the aims of this Gospel plainly was to show how clearly and consistently John the Baptist had pointed people to Jesus. Continue reading

To give testimony…

john-the-baptistThe 3rd Sunday in Advent continues to feature John the Baptist as the herald and forerunner of the Messiah. The Reading for the Third Sunday of Lent in John 1:6-8, 19-28 (shown in italics) – but it seemed good to me to also show the more continuous context of the Gospel according to John:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be 4 through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; 5 the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 6 A man named John was sent from God. 7 He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. Continue reading

John’s message

Baptism-Jesus“One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John’s message is telescoped to focus upon a single theme, the proclamation of a person still to come who will baptize the people with the Holy Spirit. As seen in the Notes, it is not clear what Mark means by this expression, nor is it clear that John understands the vey messianic terms he uses – at least in their fullness. In referring to this new Baptizer, whose dignity overshadowed his own, John avoided traditional messianic terms. The precise identity of the Coming One remained hidden, apparently, even from John.

“To come after someone” is technical terminology for discipleship among the scribes and rabbis of the first century, and this usage is reflected in Jesus’ summons to men to come, or follow after him (cf. Ch. 1:17). It is possible, therefore, that John is saying, “He who is coming is a follower of mine.” Yet he affirms that he is not worthy of performing the most menial task, from which even the Hebrew slave was released, the removal of the master’s sandals. In no stronger manner could the mystery and the dignity of the Coming One be emphasized.

The reference to the bestowal of the Spirit is appropriate to the wilderness context of John’s proclamation. Isaiah describes Israel’s trek in the wilderness as a march under the guidance of the Spirit of God (Isa. 63:11); it was the Spirit who gave the people rest in the wilderness (Isa. 63:14). As the first exodus had been a going forth into the wilderness under the leadership of God’s Spirit, the prophet announces the second exodus as a time when there will be a fresh outpouring of the Spirit (Isa. 32:15; 44:3). With this concept in mind John calls the people to the wilderness in anticipation of the fulfillment of the prophetic promise. It is this note of anticipation which Mark emphasizes by reducing John’s message to two statements, both of which point forward to something to come. They affirm that John is the forerunner of the Messiah (Ch. 1:7) and that his baptism is a preparation for the messianic baptism to come (Ch. 1:8).

By introducing his Gospel with an account of the ministry of John, the evangelist re-creates for his own contemporaries the crisis of decision with which John had confronted all Israel. It is not enough to know who John was, historically. What is required is an encounter, through the medium of history, with that summons to judgment and repentance which John issued. Because the church recognized John’s role in redemptive history as the pioneer of the kingdom of God, it accorded him a prominent place in the Gospel tradition. It refused to allow his memory to slip uninterpreted into the past, but made his witness a part of the continuing Christian proclamation. John was the first preacher of the good news concerning Jesus.

A Reflection

The Messiah is not coming to a people who are unprepared. The requirements of preparation include repentance, forgiveness of sin, and baptism – themes that are associated with Lent, but are well placed in Advent


Mark 1:6 clothed…: The reference to John’s clothing and diet serves to emphasize that he is a man of the wilderness. Both his garb and his food are those familiar to the wilderness nomad, and characterize life in the desert. The reference to the leather girdle about the Baptist’s waist recalls a characteristic feature of another man of the wilderness, the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). The explicit identification of John with Elijah, however, is not made until Ch. 9:9–13.

Mark 1:7 untie the straps of his sandals. An important cultural detail; in later Judaism, untying the thong of someone’s sandal was considered too menial a task for a Jewish slave to perform (Mekilta Exodus 21.2; b. Ketubbot 96a). If such an understanding goes back to John’s time, then John was saying that the One to come is so great that John is not worthy even to perform the most menial of tasks for him. Thus, by comparison he is less than a slave. This kind of humility appears in John’s Gospel (John 3:27–30).

Mark 1:8 he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. This allusion to baptism is associated with the arrival of the eschaton in the OT (Isa 35:15; 44:3; Ezek 11:19; 36:26–27; 37:14; Joel 2:28–29 [3:1–2]). God’s decisive act on behalf of humanity was announced as approaching in the baptizing ministry of the Messiah. This is why cleansing (water baptism) and repentance (what that cleansing represents) were part of John’s ministry of preparation (1:4). Participation in John’s baptism showed a readiness to receive the greater baptism that the coming One would bring. Preparation for forgiveness of sins leads to forgiveness when the greater One to whom John pointed is embraced. In OT thinking, when someone is cleansed and forgiven, God can indwell that person with the presence of his Spirit (Ezek 36:25–27). This summarizes Mark’s gospel: cleansing, forgiveness, and the intimate divine presence all come through the Messiah to those who, in faith, embrace repentance and reorientation in their lives.

We should be a bit cautious here and not impose a range of meanings upon Mark’s use of the Greek word baptizo which means “to wash” — usually by dipping or immersing in water. Note its use in Mark 7:4. Symbolically, it can mean: “ritual purification,” “immersion”. What meaning(s) are implied by the phrase “He will baptize in the Holy Spirit”? How is that the similar or different from John’s baptism in water? I can’t find that Jesus ever baptized in the Holy Spirit in the gospel of Mark. The word pneuma (“spirit”) occurs 23 times.

Only 4 of those include the word hagios (“Holy”):

  • Jesus will baptize in the Holy Spirit (1:8)
  • Blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable (3:29)
  • David spoke by the Holy Spirit (12:36)
  • The Holy Spirit will speak for those who are brought to trial (13:11)

Two others refer to Spirit (capital “S”)

  • Jesus’ baptism (1:10)
  • Jesus’ being driven into the wilderness to be tempted (1:12).

Eleven times it is used with “unclean”. Three more times, “unclean” or “evil” is implied. The “spiritual” theme in Mark centers more on the unclean ones – who often recognize Jesus and whom Jesus is able to cast out.

Perhaps the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” refers to the tempting persecution and suffering that the disciples would go through (13:9-13). Jesus uses “baptism” in reference to his suffering and death and indicates that at least James and John will undergo the same type of baptism (10:38-39).

There is no evidence in Mark that he understands “baptism in the Holy Spirit” in the manner assumed by Charismatics and Pentecostals.


  • John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 2 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002) 59-70
  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 1974). 39-53
  • Philip Van Linden, “Mark” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 906
  • Wilfred Harrington, Mark, vol. 4 of New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1979) 2-9
  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 525-30
  • David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005). 403-4
  • Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2001) 65-82


  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990) – archē, 191

Scripture – The New American Bible available on-line at