We often sing in our church a song “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It’s from Isaiah and others, it’s from Mark 1:3. It’s Advent-ish, it’s Epiphany-ish. It’s about being prepared for Christ’s arrival, which is annually re-lived in the Christian calendar.
It’s also how Francis Watson discusses the Second Gospel in his book The Fourfold Gospel.
There was a day when the raging discussion was the chronological order of the Gospels: Which was written first? Watson, I’m glad to say, thinks it was Mark. My impression of many younger NT professors is that they don’t care about order — they care about content only — so they just “take a view” and move on. The emphasis ought to be on content, that’s for sure, but there is a significant difference when one sees Matthew and Luke editing Mark and Mark being first. There is also then a difference on the dating of the Gospels and the development of early Christian theology. But that’s for another day and another discussion.
For Watson the issue is Why four? It seems probably Irenaeus turned to Ezekiel to explain the reason for four: four living creatures were seen by Ezekiel.
Just as the prophet beholds the exalted Christ only by focusing first on the four living creatures, so we behold him only by attending to the four gospels. And just as Christ presented himself to the prophet by way of the four-wheeled chariot and its four attendants, so he presents himself to us by way of a fourfold gospel and four evangelists.
Four wheels are accompanied by four living creatures, each with four wings. four sides, and four faces—and the faces differ. And so the differences between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were seen to be mirrored in the differences between the living creatures’ four faces: one human, the others those of a lion, a calf, and an eagle. Indeed, the two sequences could be aligned; thus, Matthew is paired with the human face or human figure, Mark with that of a lion, Luke with that of a calf, and John with that of an eagle.
Well, is this credible? arbitrary? Goofy?
John the Baptist, wilderness, from God’s place to no-place-for-God, to repentance and baptism in the Jordan. To the One who is Stronger. Jesus is baptized and emerges from the water and is declared Son of God. John then more or less disappears. Like Joseph in Matthew.
Literal-minded scholars have often regarded this traditional defense of the four-gospel collection as arbitrary and artificial. Actually it is remarkably unarbitrary, given that the idea of a fourfold gospel is unlikely ever to have entered the head of the prophet Ezekiel. According to Jerome and others, the human face is assigned to Matthew because this gospel opens with Jesus’ human genealogy. The eagle’s face is assigned to John because, in contrast to Matthew, this gospel soars into the heights of the divine sphere in which the Word was with God in the beginning. And so the two “apostolic” gospels bear witness respectively to one who is human (but also divine) and to one who is divine (but also human). … As a symbol of Mark’s wild opening, the lion is a perfect fit.
Watson sees Mark as inclusive: a baptism of repentance, forgiveness, and all done in public and a very public place, the Jordan. Jesus, too.
This is, of course, surprising. Why would Jesus confess his sins and seek forgiveness? Elsewhere in the New Testament it is said of Jesus that he was “tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. That Jesus was sinless seems to have been taken for granted by the first Christians. Matthew shows that he is aware of the problem when he has John initially refuse to baptize Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” In contrast, Mark shows no such concern. For this evangelist, Jesus’ baptism and the descent of the Spirit and divine voice that follow it are the model and prototype for Christian initiation, the event in which one becomes a Christian and a member of the Christian community.
Jesus’ baptism does not concern him alone. The new identity bestowed on him through the Spirit and the divine voice is open to participation by others. This baptism is an inclusive event, and Mark’s Christian readers recognize in it their own experience of turning from the old life to the new. That is why his account of the ministry of John the Baptist can be presented as “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The word “gospel” does not refer merely to a narrative account of Jesus’ ministry. Gospel is euaggelion, good news, and news becomes “good” only from the standpoint of its recipients.
Jesus then enters into ministry and travel and journey: from Jordan to Galilee to Jerusalem.
This, then, is “the way of the Lord” that it is John the Baptist’s role to “prepare.” The way of the Lord is the journey that begins when news of John’s baptism draws Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee to the Judean desert and the river Jordan. It is this same journey that ends in Jerusalem.
57 In giving up himself as a ransom for many, he enters their situation and makes it his own. His service to them is an act of supreme solidarity. The same is true at the beginning of Jesus’ way, when he submits to a baptism of repentance and receives the Holy Spirit and the assurance of sonship. This too takes place on behalf of the “many” in whom this experience of liberation will be reenacted. Initiated by John the Baptist, the beginning of the “way of the Lord” is the same as its end.