The kingdom at hand: who comes

john-the-baptist11 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.While vv. 8–10 may be understood at least in part as continuing the address to the Pharisees and Sadducees, now John’s address is specifically to those whom he is actually baptizing.

The superiority of the “stronger one” is explained in terms of two baptisms. John’s water-baptism is a preliminary ritual with a view to repentance, clearing the way for the real thing, the “stronger one’s” baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire. Water is an outward sign, but the work of the Holy Spirit will be inward. Since fire occurs in both v. 10 and v. 12 (and probably also by implication in v. 7 in the imagery of the snakes escaping the fire) as a metaphor for God’s judgment, it should probably be taken in the same sense here. The coming of the Holy Spirit will burn away what is bad and so purify the repentant people of God. (France, 113) Continue reading


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: repent

john-the-baptistLuke introduces the ministry of John the Baptist with a careful historical introduction listing the year, the emperor, the rulers of the surrounding territories, and the high priest who was in office. Matthew introduces John’s ministry with a very general, “in those days.” The point is not that Matthew was unaware of the interval of about thirty years that he is passing over. Rather, his purpose was to show that the birth of Christ and the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry are part of the same flow of God’s activity in salvation history. There are two major sections within this passage. Verses 1-6 introduce the ministry of John the Baptist while verses 7-12 summarize the message of John. 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

A Road Map

Old-Waterford-RoadThis past May I was visiting friends and relatives in the Washington DC area. I got to spend a couple of days out in Loudoun County, Virginia, to the north and west out along the Potomac River. I used to own a home out in those parts in a little hamlet two wrong turns off the dirt road. After growing up in Florida and always living near the ocean, suddenly I was inland and living on the first ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I also managed to set up house in a country without a public swimming pool. After I-can’t-remember-how-many years of swimming, I suddenly needed a new sport. Continue reading

The Path of Hope

thepathofhopeI have been wondering about cities, towns and villages – or more specifically, why they are where they are. Cities along the sea-coast, more particularly, on inlets, rivers, and bays leading to the ocean make sense to me. They are places with harbors, protection from direct ocean storms, access to fresh water, and other factors. Water certainly plays a major role in locating cities – not only for drinking purposes, but for transportation and strategic control of an area. The Shawnee nation understood that. The three rivers area of western Pennsylvania was the center of the Shawnee nation. Today, we call that center Pittsburgh. Continue reading

A Joyful Hope

advent_2ndThree weeks ago, the first reading for the Sunday mass was Proverbs 31: 10-31, sometimes known as the “Ode to a Worthy Wife,” it describes a woman who is more valuable than pearls; lucky the one who entrusts their heart to her. The same weekend the gospel was the “Parable of the Talents.” I suspect the gospel was the focus of most homilists, as it was the focus of my homily. But the passage from Proverbs did not go unnoticed by me. The reading reminded me of my mom. 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

More questions

Baptism-JesusQuestion 3: What was meant by “Christ”? Is it a title? Is it part of Jesus’ name?

  • The Greek christos is used to translate “anointed” or “Messiah.” It might have made sense to a Greek audience. But it would be hampered by its first century usage to refer to wrestlers who had “greased up” before their match to make it more difficult for their opponents to gain a tactical hold on them during the match.
  • The uses of “Messiah” or “anointed (one)” in the OT do not help much in understanding Jesus as Messiah.
  • The word is used of “the anointed priests” (Leviticus 4:3, 5, 16, 6:22; 2 Maccabees 2:10)
  • The word is used of the king. (Throughout 1 and 2 Samuel)
  • The word is used of Cyrus, the Persian King (Is 45:1)
  • The word is used of the prophets (Ps 105:15; 1 Chr 16:22)

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