1. Structure and outline

Considering whether Mark 1:4–8 and Mark 1:9–11 should be discussed separately

Mark 1:4–13 (ESV)

4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Mark 1:4–8 and Mark 1:9–11 (Mark 1:13) are usually discussed separately: a passage about the Baptist and a section about Jesus. But when you separate them, you fail to do justice to the fact that Mark has specifically aligned the two sections. The passage about the Baptist is not self-contained but must be interpreted by what follows. The internal cohesion of Mark 1:4–13 becomes apparent from the following:

  1. In Mark 1:4, John is not being introduced to the readers. Mark presupposes that the readers know him. His purpose is not to give an independent introduction about John the Baptist as such.

  2. The use of the phrase baptizing in the wilderness and of the specific Christian word baptism in Mark 1:4 shows that Mark presupposes that his readers know about Christian baptism. His purpose is not to provide an independent description of baptism.

    1. Mark knows that the baptism of the people took place in the Jordan (Mark 1:5). But the call to be baptized was made in the wilderness and that is more characteristic for the concept of that baptism than the fact that the immersion had to take place for practical reasons in the nearby Jordan (see John 3:23: John had to find a place with a lot of water).

  3. While the name of John and the words about baptism are used as known information in Mark 1:4, all the emphasis really falls on the penitential characteristic of this baptism. In connection with the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3, the wilderness denotes the desolate state of the people: they must leave home and hearth to be called to order by someone who dwells in the desert. And, as distinct from Christian baptism, this baptism is a sign of repentance and conversion. To be sure, it gives perspective on an anticipated forgiveness of sins, but it is not yet the sign of the acquired forgiveness in Christ.

  4. Mark 1:5 says nothing about the actual preaching to the crowds but confines itself to a global statement that all of the country of Judah and all Jerusalem went out to John. This exodus from the holy city and out of the land to which the city belongs leads to a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Again, the emphasis remains on the people humbling themselves. To what end?

  5. Mark 1:6 is not a continuation of Mark 1:5, but merely underlines it. John was also dressed simply and led a life of fasting. The placement of this description of John’s clothing and food is strange. Why is it not found between verses 4 and 5 (cf. Matthew 3:4–5)? It is because in Mark 1:6 Mark is not primarily describing people and events; instead he characterizes them. Thus, this verse completes the sketch of verses 4–6. Everything points to repentance and confession. To what end?

  6. Only in Mark 1:7–8 does it become apparent why repentance was necessary. All the people are captivated by John but after him comes someone who is mightier. John speaks about him in a manner that exceeds human understanding. He himself could easily become a slave of the emperor, the highest personage on earth, and untie his sandals. How great then must the one who is mightier be, for whom the prophet John is less than a slave? He is God himself. Whereas John baptizes with water, he baptizes with the Spirit. Only God can baptize with the Spirit. That is why John calls people to repentance, because the Lord himself is standing at the door (Isaiah 40:3)!

  7. After this passage, which must be understood as introductory (Mark 1:4–8), follows the central story in Mark 1:9–13. The beginning of verse 9 (In those days) can hardly be understood as an indication of a new pericope, for verse 9b connects to same action that was mentioned in Mark 1:5. Jesus was baptized by him in the Jordan. In Mark the story about Jesus’ baptism does not follow a bit of history about the Baptist. Rather, it is the central focus in that time (of John the Baptist). Each piece fits with the next: the Spirit (Mark 1:8 and Mark 1:10), God’s Son who comes (Mark 1:7 and Mark 1:11), the sins that must be confessed and overcome (Mark 1:4–5 and Mark 1:13), and the wilderness as the place where everything takes place (Mark 1:4 and Mark 1:12–13).

  8. The foregoing section is closed in Mark 1:14: After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee. The two principal figures from the previous section are mentioned; Mark 1:4–13 forms a unit. That is why the suggestion that this section ends at Mark 1:151 is less likely.

  9. Mark 1:1 (“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s Son”) is a suitable heading for Mark 1:4–13. John teaches the people to expect their God and the voice from heaven declares that Jesus is this Son of God. This connective element is no longer so explicit in Mark 1:14–15. There the next action is described, on the basis of the characterization in Mark 1:4–13. The gospel of the Son of God did not begin with his preaching in Galilee, but with his baptism by John and by the heavenly voice who pointed him out at that moment.

  10. The appeal to the prophets in Mark 1:2–3 did not primarily support a reference to John, but to Christ. The totality of Mark 1:4–13 fits those quotations very well. With a connection to Isaiah 40:3, Mark speaks first about a voice that announces the coming of the Lord (Mark 1:4–8). Thereafter, with a connection to Malachi 3:1, Mark speaks about the divine reference to and sending of the Angel who will prepare a way to God for the people (Mark 1:9–13).2