THE DAY OF DECISION
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan; and as soon as he came up out of the water he saw the heavens being riven asunder and the Spirit coming down upon him, as a dove might come down; and there came a voice from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; I am well pleased with you.”
To any thinking person the baptism of Jesus presents a problem. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, meant for those who were sorry for their sins and who wished to express their determination to have done with them. What had such a baptism to do with Jesus? Was he not the sinless one, and was not such a baptism unnecessary and quite irrelevant as far as he was concerned? For Jesus the baptism was four things.
(i) It was the moment of decision. For thirty years he had stayed in Nazareth. Faithfully he had done his day’s work and discharged his duties to his home. For long he must have been conscious that the time for him to go out had to come. He must have waited for a sign. The emergence of John was that sign. This, he saw, was the moment when he had to launch out upon his task.
In every life there come moments of decision which may be accepted or rejected. To accept them is to succeed; to reject them, or to shirk them, is to fail. As Lowell had it:
“Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide In the strife of Truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side; Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right And the choice goes by for ever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.”
To every man there comes the unreturning decisive moment. As Shakespeare saw it:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their lives Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
The undecided life is the wasted life, the frustrated life, the discontented life, and often the tragic life. As John Oxenham saw it:
“To every man there openeth A way and ways and a way; The high soul treads the high way, And the low soul gropes the low, And in between on the misty flats, The rest drift to and fro.”
The drifting life can never be the happy life. Jesus knew when John emerged that the moment of decision had come. Nazareth was peaceful and home was sweet, but he answered the summons and the challenge of God.
(ii) It was the moment of identification. It is true that Jesus did not need to repent from sin; but here was a movement of the people back to God; and with that Godward movement he was determined to identify himself. A man might himself possess ease and comfort and wealth and still identify himself with a movement to bring better things to the downtrodden and the poor and the ill-housed and the over-worked and the underpaid. The really great identification is when a man identifies himself with a movement, not for his own sake, but for the sake of others. In John Bunyan’s dream, Christian came in his journeying with Interpreter to the Palace which was heavily guarded and required a battle to seek an entry. At the door there sat the man with the inkhorn taking the names of those who would dare the assault. All were hanging back, then Christian saw “a man of a very stout countenance come up to the man that sat there to write, saying, `Set down my name, sir’.” When great things are afoot the Christian is bound to say, “Set down my name, sir,” for that is what Jesus did when he came to be baptized.
(iii) It was the moment of approval. No man lightly leaves his home and sets out on an unknown way. He must be very sure that he is right. Jesus had decided on his course of action, and now he was looking for the seal of the approval of God. In the time of Jesus the Jews spoke of what they called the Bath (HSN1323) Qol (HSN6963), which means, the daughter of a voice. By this time they believed in a series of heavens, in the highest of which sat God in the light to which no man could approach. There were rare times when the heavens opened and God spoke; but, to them, God was so distant that it was only the far away echo of his voice that they heard. To Jesus the voice came directly. As Mark tens the story, this was a personal experience which Jesus had and not in any sense a demonstration to the crowd. The voice did not say, “This is my beloved Son,” as Matthew has it (Matt.3:17). It said, “Thou art my beloved Son,” speaking direct to Jesus. At the baptism Jesus submitted his decision to God and that decision was unmistakably approved.
(iv) It was the moment of equipment. At that time the Holy Spirit descended upon him. There is a certain symbolism here. The Spirit descended as a dove might descend. The simile is not chosen by accident. The dove is the symbol of gentleness. Both Matthew and Luke tell us of the preaching of John. (Matt.3:7-12; Lk.3:7-13.) John’s was a message of the axe laid to the root of the tree, of the terrible sifting, of the consuming fire. It was a message of doom and not of good news. But from the very beginning the picture of the Spirit likened to a dove is a picture of gentleness. He will conquer, but the conquest will be the conquest of love.
Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary