The Incarnate Contradiction

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In the story of Elijah, found in 1 Kings, God sent fire from heaven to consume a soaking wet sacrifice. Imagine the scene. Elijah, the prophet of God had challenged four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal to prove their respective gods were alive and active. Two altars were built, and two bulls were killed. Elijah said, “You may call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The God who answers by fire, He is God.”  The prophets of Baal work themselves up into a frenzy under the mocking voice of Elijah. But they fail. When it is Elijah’s turn, he ups the stakes and pours water all over the altar to God. The altar is dripping and completely sodden when the sky rips open and God shows up. The people see the sign and are convinced that God is there and interacting with them. But instead of riding the momentum of victory and clearing the land and palace of Baal worshippers, Elijah turns heel and runs away. He walks forty days and nights to meet God at Mt. Horeb. The location was not a coincidence. After defeating Pharaoh in the waters of the Red Sea, Moses had spent forty days and nights on Mt. Horeb receiving the covenant law from God. Elijah feels abandoned and alone, and he returns to this deserted spot to find God. Both Elijah and Moses spend forty days alone after a great victory involving water and a spectacular revelation of God’s presence.

As we turn to the baptism of Jesus, we must be sure not to overlook the parallels that Mark is alluding to. He is telling us the story in a way to highlight cultural parallels for those who will be reading his book. For the Jews, we see symbolism emerging tying Jesus to the great prophets of the Scriptures. For the Romans, we see contrasts to the cultural environment of the Roman Empire. Through it all, Mark is inaugurating the key tension he presents throughout the book. Jesus has been given divine authority as the son of God, yet he is still a free human agent. This is the incarnate contradiction. How can God be a human? Mark’s purpose is to convince his readers that Jesus is the son of the living God even though it seems incongruous and dissonant.

We moderns are at a disadvantage as we read Mark because we no longer live in the cognitive environment of the ancient world. Mark was writing to those who lived under Roman rule. They had a cultural understanding of what it meant to claim divine paternity.

First, it was a claim to authority and power. An ancient example of this is the adoption of Octavian by Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar declared that Octavian, his nephew, was his son and heir. When Caesar died, Suetonius says that a formal decree and the conviction of the common people rendered him a god. So, Octavian began to call himself the “son of god” to strengthen his connection to his adopted father and to his claim to his full inheritance. He also took his adopted father’s name as his request, calling himself Gaius Caesar, with the surname Augustus. When something was consecrated as sacred by augural rites, it was called “august.” Augury is the interpretation of the will of the gods according to the flight of birds. Augustus claimed the power and authority of his divine father Julius Caesar through the divine will of the gods as given by the omen of birds. (Suetonius, The Life of Augustus, 7)

Second, according to Jewish understanding, being called a son of God indicated a particular relationship to God. Israel as a group is called the son of God that is under his divine protection. So is King David and his son Solomon. Isaiah indicated that God would send a specific son who would be called by the same names as God himself. As the son of God, Jesus did not just act on behalf of God, like many other religious figures throughout history, Jesus acted as God. Throughout his book, Mark presents Jesus as someone who behaved as if he was God himself, like the son of God would. The beginning of that conviction of divine parentage begins at Jesus’ baptism. Let’s turn to Mark 1:9-13.

9 And it happened in those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John.

Mark swiftly addresses the whole episode of Jesus’ baptism. He sets Jesus apart from all the others coming to John to be baptized as from Galilee, a northern region, as opposed to “everyone” else from Judea and Jerusalem in the south. Mark ignores the dialogue of John and Jesus that the other gospel writers include and skips right to what he wants to highlight.

God reveals his presence to Jesus.

10 And at once, going up from the water, he saw the tearing open of the heavens and the Spirit descending as a dove into him.

“At once,” or “immediately,” is a Markism, a common and pervasive word Mark employs over and over. His use of this word is like a bullet point. It indicates a new thought or story. It is brief and concise. He uses it twice in this section, both times to indicate what God’s Spirit does to Jesus. Before we get to those main points, I want to point out what Mark does not mention. Mark is silent about why Jesus got baptized and any dialogue between him and John. Mark simply skips to the end, to the heavenly revelation that Jesus saw.

Jesus saw the heavens violently torn open and out of them descended the presence of God. Later, at the end of the book, Mark uses this same imagery to describe the tearing of the veil that enclosed the most sacred room in the Jewish temple at the moment Jesus died. Here, he is foreshadowing that God is breaking through our world and is preparing to do something through Jesus.

Jesus saw the presence of God descend as a dove. In a culture that viewed birds as omens or at the least, imbued with symbolism, Mark gives us this information and does not explain further. The Romans valued the movement of birds as auspicious; and augers, the men who interpreted the bird’s actions, were highly influential. Perhaps, Mark gave us the dove detail to contrast Jesus with Augustus, who was named for the movement of birds and claimed to be a divine son as well. And the dove’s movement is auspicious indeed. Mark says that Jesus saw the dove descend “into” him. Many English translations will say “upon” him. But Mark consistently uses this preposition elsewhere in his book to describe a penetration into something. Jesus received the Spirit of God.  He was aware that God’s presence was inside him.  

In another gospel we learn that John saw this vision of the Spirit’s descent into Jesus as well. For Mark though, this vision was for Jesus’ eyes alone. Why does Mark keep this revelation private between Jesus and God? Mark is introducing the dissonant tension of Jesus’ identity. Jesus, as a divine son was a man who needed to see a vision. God confirmed his presence to Jesus. Jesus was given a personal sign that he was special. But the vision was not the entire revelation. What Jesus saw may not have been witnessed by others, but they did hear the voice. The vision was for Jesus, but God also wanted others to hear that Jesus was his son.

11 And a voice came out of the heavens. “You are my son, whom I love. In you I am well pleased.”

God declares his paternity and expresses loving approval.

God claims Jesus as a son. To the ancient reader, perhaps they thought about Caesar declaring Octavian his son and understood that God was granting his authority and power to Jesus. To the Jewish readers, perhaps they envisioned God’s voice coming out of the clouds at Mt. Sinai speaking the words of the covenant to Israel. It was an empirical experience for those present at Jesus’ baptism granting Jesus the authority and power of his father. With loving approval, God also endorses Jesus to all those who came to John for baptism. God wants to be known through Jesus. God finds pleasure in him. He is beloved. In declaring his love, God invites others to find out what is so lovely and pleasing about his son.

However, Mark won’t let us stay in the moment. He moves us quickly with his bullet point and a change of verb tense. It is like he is hitting a dissonant cord when he writes in verse 12…

12 And at once, the Spirit throws him into the desert. And he was in the desert 40 days to be tempted by the enemy.

God throws Jesus to the enemy.

What the Spirit did to Jesus in verse 12 is the same as what Jesus does to the evil spirits and demons he encounters. He casts him out. The Spirit drives Jesus to the desert. Why? What was the purpose? Mark uses a participle of intent to give us the reason: to be tested by Satan, whose very name means “the enemy.”

Like the experiences of Elijah and Moses before him, Jesus was doused with water, saw the presence of God, and then endured forty days in the desert. God did not declare Jesus his son and then make his way easy. Instead, God prepared his way straight through forty days of personal struggle. Jesus’s time of testing was a divine appointment that established Jesus’ free agency as a human. Like the first human in Genesis, Jesus is given the choice to remain faithful to God or to go his own way. God’s love is marked by his gift of freedom to love him back or to reject his love. God had torn open heaven and given himself to Jesus, but Jesus still had a choice. He had forty days of choice. He could submit to the road God had prepared for him, or he could make his own path.

Mark is again silent on the particulars that other gospel writers include. Mark ignores the manner and content of the tempting. He gives no specifics on fasting, nor what Jesus spoke to Satan about, and he does not even comment that Jesus overcame in victory. Bullet points is what Mark gives us – and also these weird things about animals and angels.

13 And he was with the wild animals. And the messengers served him.

No one knows what Mark is referring to with the wild animals. We know that the word he uses, translated as “wild,” means these are not cuddly creatures, but rather vicious predators. We should not get a picture in our minds of Jesus as St. Francis holding a cat. Perhaps, Mark wants to paint an image of Jesus standing against devouring beasts as a nod to those who were to face Nero’s horrendous persecutions. Or, maybe he was alluding back to Daniel surviving the lions. No two Bible scholars agree on what Mark means. And when you have a vague reference like this that does not occur anywhere else in Scripture, it is best not to be too dogmatic about your opinion.

Mark began his book at “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus.” The beginning was marked with the fulfilled prophecy about a messenger to prepare the way of the Lord. He wraps the introduction here in verse 13 with many messengers. We could translate messengers as angels, but I think Mark is ending “the beginning” as he started, with messengers. These envoys are feeding Jesus and caring for his needs. Just as God sent an angel to feed Elijah during his forty days in the desert, and God sent the bread of angels (manna) to the children of Israel in their forty years in the wilderness, so God fed his son.

And here Mark ends his introduction on a jangle. Jesus, the son of God, has needs. He was hungry. He was tempted. Mark has layered the facts of Jesus’ experience of baptism to reveal parallels to both his Jewish and Roman readers. Jesus, soaking wet from his immersion in the waters of the Jordan, sees God send his Spirit from heaven to consume him. God’s voice cries out his identity as a beloved son and imbues him with authority and power. Yet, the way prepared for him did not to lead him to comfort nor celebrity, but a choice. He is the incarnate contradiction. Jesus was God who hungered, suffered through feelings of abandonment and doubt, faced his worst enemy and needed the succor of God’s messengers. Jesus has divine power wielded through the willing heart of a man.

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