Introduction: Jesus in 4-D
On the 28th August 1989 the band Depeche Mode released a song called Personal Jesus. I personally think it’s a great song. If you like 1980s music you might well agree. However, it does not make for good theology. In fact, it inadvertently acts as a critique of other bad theology. A close analysis of the lyrics implies that Jesus is essentially just a therapist and not a lot more. The singer-poet implies that they could be both lover and therapist—the implication is that Jesus might be good therapist, but the singing lover will be a better one.
One of the biggest problems in faith, as well as theology, is that we have a terrifying tendency to make Jesus into a reflection of ourselves and/or to caricature him. Professional theologians and believers in general both have this ability of taking the God-Man Jesus and making him into their own ‘personal Jesus’—seeing him in 1-D, or at best 2-D. In this way, the most remarkable person in all history is neatly labelled, categorised and at the same time emptied of his enormous depth and substance.
Church History and history at large have countless examples. Here are just three:
- Nineteenth-century German liberal theologians saw Jesus as a liberal pedlar of timeless truths emptied of his Jewishness.
- Some Marxist Liberation theologians look to Jesus and see a Marxist revolutionary.
- Margaret Thatcher famously looked at Jesus and saw a proponent of Thatcherite economics.
The wrong Jesus means the wrong gospel, and the wrong gospel is simply not Good News. Seeing Jesus in 1-D supports lifestyles, politics, worship and faith, all contrary to the Good News. The wrong Jesus obscures the best news. The very real danger is that we lose the Good News about the creator’s action for us and obscure it with a Jesus of our creation. In creating our own personal Jesus we can prevent the possibility of genuine personal relationship with the Father through Jesus.
One way to address this problem is to turn to the four New Testament gospels. To attempt to see Jesus afresh as those first witnesses report. To see Jesus in 4-D. This reflection is just one small contribution to this aim.
Mark and Jesus’ Baptism
Mark’s gospel is the shortest of the canonical gospels. Most of its verses are found in the other two Synoptic Gospels: Matthew and Luke. In terms of content it does not add much to the accounts of Matthew and Luke. So why worry about Mark’s Gospel? Why even bother? Can’t we just cut out the unique bits and paste them as an appendix to Matthew and Luke? Or how about making a single bigger gospel? As great a theologian as John Calvin did just this in his epic commentary on the Synoptics: A Harmony of the Gospels.
If we think this is a good idea we are, I think, missing a major point of why there are four gospels included in Scripture. Mark has a ‘story’ to tell and a ‘biography’ to unfold. Jesus’ life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his significance are beyond one human’s capacity to capture. Mark makes a contribution equal to that of the other gospel writers. Despite being shorter he has captured and presented a unique account of the remarkable nature of Jesus in his own God-authorised way.
Mark’s account is a gospel of phenomenal pace and dynamism, as well as having been shaped so that the episodes and events emphasise Mark’s understanding of Jesus. This account probably served as The Gospel for one of the earliest Christian churches—it was all they had for perhaps a decade or two. We are privileged to have all four authorised ‘biographies’ of Jesus.
I would encourage you to make time to encounter each gospel over the next three months. Reading Mark’s gospel at a gentle pace takes just under two hours—this is the length of a typical film or four episodes of a soap opera. Why not get it as an audio book for freshness?
Mark makes much of three key events in the life of Jesus: his baptism, his transfiguration and his crucifixion.1 Mark even appears to make deliberately links between the three events. Here at his baptism, for example, the heavens are ‘torn open’ and a dove descends. At the transfiguration his garments turn white and a cloud descends. Whilst at his crucifixion the sanctuary curtain is torn and darkness descends.
At his baptism of Jesus, a voice from heaven is heard, at the transfiguration a voice is heard from the cloud and at the crucifixion Jesus’ own loud voice is heard.
As Jesus is baptised God says “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”, during the transfiguration God says “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” and during his crucifixion it is said that “Surely this man was the Son of God!”.
John the Baptist plays the role of Elijah at the baptism (the camel’s hair and belt give it away), Jesus is joined by Elijah on the mount of transfiguration and Jesus is thought, by some, to be calling to Elijah as he is crucified.
The baptism, transfiguration and crucifixion are for Mark the central points of revelation—they reveal his gospel to be the:
“good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”
As he stated at the very outset.
John the Baptiser
The return of Elijah had become a mainstream Jewish hope by the time of Jesus. And Mark echoes the description of Elijah from 2 Kings 1:8. Mark picks up specifically on the hope that Elijah, or a new Elijah, would prepare the way for the Messiah. John the Baptist was a proponent, as his name suggests, of baptism. The very word baptism, is for us, rich in meaning and we see it as a religious word, the carrying out of a religious rite whether by immersion in water or by sprinkling of water during infant baptism or Christening.
But those hearing the call to be baptised and seeing other people baptised were seeing something new—we know that there was a Jewish renewal movement who practiced ritual bathing, the Essenes who were the owners of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But their practice was for the community and was a repeated ritual. Some scholars think John might have been one of these Essenes. But John is doing something different in his call to baptism. The word baptism was a normal everyday word, simply meaning being submerged or being drenched in water.
John the Baptist, as Mark makes clear started something—he initiated a call to baptism as a testimony to a decision of repentance and renewal of faith. He prepared the way by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. He is part of the old order—he preaches forgiveness under the old covenant. He is also a bridge between old and new. A bridge between Torah and Gospel. Just as John heralds Jesus, so Jesus heralds good news. The first we hear of this good news is some continuity. Jesus also promotes baptism and he also teaches forgiveness of sins.
Jesus the Baptiser
But when someone is a bridge there is not only continuity there is also newness. There is startling newness encountered here in Mark’s story of Jesus. It might not sound new to us, but the way in which Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope was remarkable. This is the reason why so many did no instantly believe this message of good news.
The truth of Jesus’ message was not enough to start Christianity. The veracity of Mark’s account and the other gospels was not enough. The Holy Spirit that Jesus baptised with at Pentecost, and subsequently, was the powerhouse that enabled the journey of the Good News of forgiveness from 12, to 120, to 2000, and to the ends of the earth.
The forgiveness of sins is of course not just something that Jesus talks about, it is something that he achieves in his very actions—in his life, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. What John promises is not just a present opportunity for water baptism, but that the Messiah bringing an extra dimension to baptism. John was only too aware that he baptised with water—just good old H2O, with a few impurities no doubt, from the river Jordan. But the one he was preparing the way for would baptise in Holy Spirit.
In much of the New Testament it is not always clear whether baptism refers to water or the Holy Spirit. In early Christian thinking the two merged into one—water baptism and Spirit baptism are both expected early steps in Christian initiation and discipleship—two sides of the same early experience of faith and the encounter with Jesus in 4-D.
Christians have disagreed on what Spirit baptism means, for example whether it must be accompanied by speaking in tongues, prophecy or some other manifestation. Most Pentecostals teach a two-stage process as normal where Spirit baptism is normally a so-called second blessing after the receiving of the Spirit as a seal for salvation. Others see, at least ideally, a single stage.
Whether it be a quiet sense of inner peace, a warm inward glow, speaking in other tongues or something even more dramatic, such work and experience of the Spirit is part of what it means to follow a Jesus who baptises in Spirit. We must remember that we can’t invoke the Holy Spirit. God’s action by his Spirit is not dependent on us. Unfortunately, what we can do is quench his work.
The best ways of avoiding quenching the Spirit and to be in the place of God moving by his Spirit are to look to holiness, prayer, repentance, obedience and Scripture. The Church and our faith are served best when our lives are open to both receiving God’s word and receiving God’s Holy Spirit. For God the Father works in his creation continually by his two hands, the 4-D Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
- I am indebted to Ched Myers’s unique commentary, Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, for this helpful point.