First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (Series B)
February 18, 2018icon-download-pdf-wp

Gospel: Mark 1:9-15
Epistle: James 1:12-18
Lesson: Gen. 22:1-18
Psalm: Psalm 25:1-10

CLB Commentary – Dr. David Veum

“Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise through Isaiah. He is the Servant who will comfort those who have been exiled because of their sin, bring good news, come with power, rule with a mighty arm, and shepherd the people.”¹ While this statement is way too big for one sermon, it does summarize Mark’s purpose in his opening verses.

Until studying this pericope I have always found the first half of chapter 1 to be rather disjointed. It seems like Mark jumps from one thought to another. Robert Guelichk’s commentary in the Word Biblical Commentary series has helped me to see that the first 15 verses are instead a very tight unit. They are Mark’s prologue. Here is the explanation.

Mark begins with a phrase that provides the subject and the thesis for his whole book: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” His opening declaration announces Jesus as the Messiah, the title that he “keeps secret” until Peter’s confession in chapter 8.

He then states his text: Isaiah 40:3. Since his text addresses the Servant of Isaiah, “I will send my messenger ahead of you,” all that Isaiah says about this Servant serves as the backdrop for what Mark is going to say. To support his text he reports the basic facts about John the Baptist to prove that John was in fact the messenger promised in Isaiah 40. John’s message points to the One for whom he was to prepare the way. The Coming One would baptize with the Holy Spirit.

The baptism of Jesus provides the historical setting for Mark’s prologue. The voice from heaven then announces who Jesus is and the Spirit descends. The phrase in verse 10, “he saw heaven being torn open,” likely refers to the prophet’s prayer in Isaiah 64:1, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.” God has now answered that prayer at the baptism of Jesus. The Spirit has descended. That he comes in the form of a dove may not be saying more than, “The invisible Spirit was made visible in the form of a dove in order to show that he had come.” The Spirit equips Jesus for the ministry which Mark will describe in the rest of the book following his prologue.

Both Matthew and Luke use the verb for “open,” but Mark uses the verb for “tear open.” Picture someone ripping a piece of cloth in two. It is as though God at last takes the wall of heaven and “tears it open” so that the Spirit can descend. He is making a way for sinners through the wall that had been closed since he had to force Adam and Eve from the Garden.

The voice from heaven then announces, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” This points back to Psalm 2:7. Jesus is the royal Son. As the beloved Son he is God’s unique, his “one and only” Son. He is also the Servant of Isaiah 42:1 who is described as, “My chosen one in whom I delight,” and the One on whom God puts his Spirit.

Mark then summarizes the ministry of this Son through a very brief overview of the temptation in the wilderness. Jesus, “driven by the Spirit,” enters the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan. Guelichk points out that “wilderness” represents:

  • the place of God’s coming deliverance (Isa 40; Matt 24:26)
  • a place of eschatological testing
  • the abode of Satan and evil
  • and the inhospitable habitat of wild animals


In contrast to Adam who was in the Garden, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness and overcomes. That he was tempted for 40 days points out the contrast between Jesus and Israel. Israel was tempted in the wilderness and failed. They wandered for 40 years. Jesus was tempted for 40 days and was victorious. That Jesus was ministered to by angels brings to mind God’s sustaining of the prophet Elijah.

Mark does not give any detail about the temptation. Instead, he points to the effects. Guelichk notes that the presence of wild animals does not add to the temptation. Rather, this shows Jesus’ victory and his restoration of all things. Just as Adam was with the animals in the Garden, Jesus is with the wild animals in the wilderness and suffers no harm from them. “Jesus’ peaceful coexistence ‘with the wild animals’ boldly declares the presence of the age of salvation when God’s deliverance would come in the wilderness and harmony would be established within creation according to the promise, especially of Isaiah (11:6–9 and 65:17–25).”

Out of this assertion of victory and restoration Mark then gives a few summary statements about the ministry of Jesus to conclude his prologue. Jesus begins to proclaim “the good news of God.” He is the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah 52:7 whose feet are beautiful on the mountain and of Isaiah 61:1 who announces the good news of God’s reign.

The message that the kingdom has come near points to both an immediate and a future fulfillment. The Greek verb can refer to either “arrival” or “nearness.” One scholar suggests that both are intended.

The call is to repent and believe. This likely provides the direction for a sermon on the 1st Sunday in Lent. Lent is especially a time for repentance. The Old Testament verb means to turn, return, or go back again. How have we wandered like Israel in the wilderness or like Israel in the Promised Land? How do we need to turn back? Christ calls us to again believe the gospel, the gospel that he will fulfill just as Mark describes it in the rest of his book.


1 See Isaiah 40:1-11.

Second Sunday in Lent
Ash Wednesday