In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

See the general introduction to Mark

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today/challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Mark.

The world of the text

Text & textual features

This is the passage in which Mark’s author introduces Jesus and who he is – both as Jesus of Nazareth and the Beloved Son.  This is a direct and short account, though not simple.

There are no stories of his birth or childhood before this beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. This episode is simply preceded by an account of John the Baptist calling all to moral conversion and foretelling the coming of one greater than himself. This account contains four significant images drawn from Jewish scripture, including that of coming up from the water (Isa. 63:11) and of the heavens being torn open (Isa. 64:1) as part of a larger prayer for God to help his people. The Spirit coming down like a dove recalls the Spirit of God hovering over the waters in the actions of creation (Gen 1), now coming to Jesus as an act of renewed creation. The mystical voice heard by Jesus proclaims him as the unique Son of God draws from Psalm 2:7 (“You are my son”) and Isaiah 42:1 (“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations”).

Characters & Setting

There is only one central character in this account, Jesus. John the Baptist, who is introduced in the opening paragraphs of the Gospel, plays a secondary role.

John the Baptist is on the Jordan River in Judea, at the edge of wilderness in the south of Jewish territory near Jerusalem. This is not a place of power. John was baptising, however this is not the same as baptism is understood today. Although the language of Mark’s account rings of associations with Christian baptism (Mk 1:4 – ‘John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’) we should keep the two rituals at arm’s length. Ritual washing was part of Jewish life, but in the case of John, his baptism was less about cleansing and much more about a public witness to a desire for conversion and moral change. John is only here to proclaims that the one to follow will baptise them with the Holy Spirit.

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Mark 1:9-11 sees Jesus introduced simply as an ordinary person of Nazareth in Galilee. There is no mention of him being a kinsperson of John. Where he comes from is important: Nazareth is an insignificant village in Galilee to the north. Galilee is Jewish land but its inhabitants are often regarded suspiciously, viewed as not being quite Jewish enough.

No reason is given for Jesus being far from home. He may be travelling to Jerusalem for a religious festival, or he may have heard of John’s actions and come to see for himself. Regardless of the reason, Jesus is stirred by John’s message and is baptised. This is the only Gospel in which he see Jesus being baptised. Matthew and Luke record it as a past event, and John’s parallel account does not refer to Jesus being baptised.

What happens to Jesus as and after he is baptised is a fundamental change for him. His earlier normal and obscure life is ending, and his life of preaching, love, and healing is about to begin. The temptation is to sometimes understand Jesus as having known fully who he was and what was to happen throughout his life. However, knowing what was to come would have made his humanity a charade. Mark’s author records a profound realisation by Jesus that he was being called to a particular mission, similarly to prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Three signs indicate the clear identity of Jesus. The heavens are torn open, the spirit descends like a dove and God speak. This is the first time this Gospel affirms Jesus as the Son of God, and it happens in the strength of words spoken out loud by God alone. The only other time will be when a centurion announces the same reality after Jesus has died on the cross. These two spoken affirmations stand as bookends for the whole Gospel.

Through these images, this short and direct episode opens the Gospel by declaring this nondescript person from an insignificant village is truly the Son of God. He is the Messiah, but not in the way expected. The remainder of the Gospel expands on this declaration, culminating in Jesus changing the world through his death and resurrection.

Questions for the teacher:

What is the text saying? What am I wondering about the text?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text? What might they wonder about?
What of this information is important to share with the students?

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher:

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

How do you respond to the text?
What does the text tell us about the world that God desires? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you and asking us to do?
In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? What do you want them to know, believe and do?

Meaning for today/challenges

This story is one that makes clear links between the Old and New Testaments, bringing the imagery and symbolism of the Jewish tradition to our understanding of Jesus. It is one of Jesus hearing and heeding the call of His Father and being open to what is taking place, with complete trust. This call was supported by the words and actions of John. Jesus had spent his life in obscurity, being the most faithful Jew he could be. This was his call to conversion or call to action. He heard it and responded immediately.

The challenge today is to also being open to the voice of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, particularly when it may come indirectly through the actions of other people. It can come through the unexpected.

Church interpretation

Whilst the purpose of John’s baptism and current baptismal understandings are different, the Church recognises the need to hear the voice of God and for conversion in service of God’s mission. The Sacrament of Baptism continues to honour this.

You can learn more about Baptism here.

The presence and action of the Holy Spirit is continually affirmed and proclaimed in the life and witness of the Church, and through its liturgy, prayer, and Sacraments.

Liturgical Usage

Mark 1:1-11 is the Gospel reading for the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord in Year B of the Lectionary cycle. It provides the opening words of the Gospel, the work of John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus.

The other readings for the day are Genesis 1:1-5 (beginning the first account of Creation), Psalm 29 (focusing on the voice of God) and Acts 19:1-7 (Paul baptises in Corinth and the Holy Spirit comes down).