Mark does not spend any time looking at the early life of Jesus Christ. We get no managers, magi, or angels. Mark abruptly turns from his introduction (Mark 1:1) to John the prophet. We know him for his ceremonial act of baptism; Jesus calls him ‘John the Baptist’ (Matt 11:11-12). We can sometimes focus on his actions of baptism (as we will see with Christ and his miracles) and neglect or minimalize his preaching. John was more than a man who baptized people. He came with God’s Word. He came as a forerunner preparing the way for Christ. He came as a prophet proclaiming the word of God. He came preaching repentance.
I. Preparing the Way (vs. 2-3)
As we looked at last week, the Old Testament foreshadows the coming of the Messiah. Even though mark was written to a majority of gentiles he still begins connecting the coming of Christ with the promises of Christ’s coming in the Old Testament. The prophets proclaimed the word of God to the people of God, speaking of one who would come who would crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). Mark’s gospel begins with a quotation from Exodus (23:20) and prophecy found in Malachi (3:1) and Isaiah (40:3).
The text follows almost exactly from the Greek translation of Exodus 23:20. Exodus 23:20, begins with God telling Israel that he would send an angel (same Greek word for messenger) before you… We need to note the location of the Israelites at this time was in the wilderness, which is a common phrase in Mark chapter 1 (Mark 1:3, 4, 12, 13) . The wilderness wanderings was the response for not listening and trusting the Lord that he would deliver the enemies intoHis hand. The Angel would prepare the way for them, bringing them into the promised land. We cannot go into depth of this passage in this study, however we should note that the following verse which Mark quotes says, “Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him” (Ex 23:21).
Malachi speaks of a messenger who is to come who will prepare the way before the Lord. The reason the messenger who is sent by God needs to prepare the way before him is because Israel says, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them” (Mal 2:17). They seek justice for the wrong done to them, but they do not see the evil they commit in the sight of the Lord. They call good evil and evil good (Is 5:20). Therefore, God sends a messenger to warn of his coming. To prepare them, because the Lord is coming ‘like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap. John the Baptist is this messenger who goes before the Lord, warning that he is coming. He prepares the way through baptism (ceremonial washing) and the preaching of repentance.
Isaiah chapter 40 speaks of the strength of God and his word. The people of God have comfort in God because he has brought peace to them. Isaiah 40:5 says, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” The comfort for God’s people is that God has spoken, and he is mighty. His word will endure forever and not fade away. The good news (cf Mark 1:1; Is 40:9). Is that they would “behold your God” (Is 40:9). He comes in might, with reward, tenderly like a shepherd. We see this in the ministry of Jesus. He comes with strength and authority and also with the Word of God. God’s people find comfort in Christ’s power and his words. John the Baptist points to this comfort found only in Jesus. John merely prepares the way.
II. Baptizing with Water (vs. 4-6)
The two prophesies make it clear the messenger is merely preparing the way for the Lord. He is not the Messiah. The messenger, who is John the Baptist, comes preparing the way. Mark explains how he prepared the way for Christ to come. In verse four, he describes how John prepared the way for Christ to come; 1) baptizing and 2) proclaiming repentance.
Baptism is a hot topic of conversation amongst scholars, which we will not discuss in this forum. However, we need to note that John’s baptism is different from the Christian baptism. Paul explains that there is one baptism that unites the visible church (Eph 4:5). However, Paul meets with believers in Ephesus in Acts 19. He asks them, “Into what then were you baptized?” Their answer is, “Into John’s Baptism.” Paul explains to them, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” After they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (Cf. Acts 19:1-5). John even explains in Mark’s gospel that he only baptizes people with water, but the Messiah will baptize them with the Holy Spirit.
The baptism of John is one of repentance (Mark 1:4; Matt 3:11; Acts 19:4). The ceremonial cleanings of water were a visible outworking of the repentance through the forgiveness of sins. The act of baptism was not the important aspect of John’s preparations, but the sin that they need to repent and ask forgiveness. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees of their outward cleanliness, but they still had inward greed and self-indulgence (Matt 23:25-26). As mentioned in Malachi’s prophecy, Christ was coming with judgment and to cleanse their wickedness. “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:5). Repentance means to change one’s mind or way.
Christ comes graciously, tenderly, and peacefully to those who are his sheep. However, Christ is not a push-over. He calls his people to ‘return to him’ (Mal 3:7). John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament Prophets, whose message was frequently about turning from your sin and turning to God. Even his attrite (Mark 1:6) is that of the Old Testament prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8 cf. Mark 9:9-13). A prophet’s role was twofold; they would forth-tell the word of God, but they would also fore-tell of what God would do in the future if they did or did not listen to his word. John the Baptist’s message was the same, turn from your sin because the Messiah is coming. Whether you heed the prophet’s words will then alter how the Messiah’s will come.
III. Preaching Christ (vs. 7-8)
John the Baptist was a supporting actor. He was the second fiddle player. He was not the Messiah; he was the divine messenger of the Covenant (Mal 3:1). Like all prophets, they pointed forward to Christ to come. As the last of the Old Testament prophets, John was just the last messenger to point to Christ. John explains that he is unworthy to untie the sandals of the one who is to come. The gospel of John expands on John the Baptist’s unworthiness,
“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:28–30).
John the Baptist is merely a part of the wedding party, rejoicing with the bridegroom. John explains that “Jesus must increase, and he must decrease.” He knows that his baptism is not the end, It only cleanses with water. However, the one who is coming, Christ, is mightier he is the ‘bridegroom.’ John’s ministry is that of all true believers, pointing people to Christ. He accomplishes this not through making a name for himself, not through particular programs, but by the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God. John Calvin explains in his Preface to the New Testament, translated by his cousin Pierre Robert Olivétan,
“This is what we should, in short, seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him.”
John the Baptist is John the preparer or pointer. He comes merely to prepare the way of the Lord. Like a police car leading the motorcade, he warns people of coming of the Messiah.
John explains his baptism is only with water, however Christ’s is a baptism of the Spirit. In Christ’s baptism believers are united to Christ himself, in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:1-4, Col 2:12). When we look to John and his baptism and forget Christ, we do not understand why God sent John as a messenger. He sent him as a messenger to proclaim repentance. The Holy One is coming, prepare yourself! When we realize the Holy one is coming, we should exclaim like Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is 6:5). The King has come. Christ is here! We go to him, not in proudful arrogance of our greatness, but we are not worthy even to untie his sandals. We come in weakness because he comes in strength. John the Baptist will be persecuted and beheaded for proclaiming this message (Mark 6:14-29). Yet, he still proclaims Christ and the need for repentance. Interestingly, the end of Mark ends with the angels telling the women at the tomb to “tell Jesus’ disciples,” yet they left and said nothing to anyone because they were afraid (Mark 16:7-8). “He must increase. I must decrease.”