[This is the third post in my Bible study on Mark. See the others here.]
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight,'”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
What the Bible Says
As we saw last time, Mark has just abruptly opened his Gospel with the good news that Jesus is here. Now he moves into the actual story of that arrival. This story begins, rather unexpectedly, not with Jesus Himself but with John the Baptist (or baptizer, as the NRSV renders it).
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah — Mark begins right off with an appeal to the Scriptures, which is a reasonable strategy to back up his claim that Jesus is the Messiah. If anyone is to accept Jesus as Messiah, they will have to see how He fulfills the relevant Scriptures.
A potential problem, for some, arises at this point. While Mark says “the prophet Isaiah,” the following quotation is not just from Isaiah, but actually starts from Malachi. There are also other manuscripts which simply say “the prophets,” which probably resulted from a scribe trying to fix that problem. In the end, though, this doesn’t need to bother us. Over half of the quote is from Isaiah, and since Isaiah is also the more prominent book of the two, the lack of precision is unimportant.
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way — This part of the quote is from Malachi 3:1. In the original context, God was declaring judgment on Judah for her sins. In 2:17, God accuses the people of asking, “Where is the God of justice?” Then 3:1 comes as the answer. God has sent a messenger ahead to prepare His way, and according to the next part of the verse He will come suddenly to His temple. Then verse 2 makes it clear that this visit will be a day of judgment, for “who can endure the day of his coming?”
the voice […] paths straight” — This part of the quote is from Isaiah 40:3. The wording of this verse is very similar to Malachi 3:1, but there is an important difference in meaning. Isaiah 40 is an announcement of comfort and promise of redemption to Israel. Instead of the impending doom Malachi speaks of, this verse references impending forgiveness, despite being nearly the same.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness — Again, Mark works with sudden appearances, the kinds of abrupt changes you would expect in a vision or dream. Now John has appeared, apparently as the fulfillment of the cited texts. Based on these verses, he is a messenger preparing the way for Yahweh’s return to Jerusalem. The wilderness location is significant. Israel has always had an interesting relationship with the wilderness, having wandered for 40 years. New religious movements at this time often retreated to the wilderness, including Messianic ones. Yet John is not secluding himself with followers; he is baptizing and preaching.
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins — Now we know what John is preaching. Baptism was at this time a rite that Jewish proselytes (Gentiles who wanted to fully join Judaism and Israel) would undergo, hinting that John saw sinful Israel as cut off from God’s people and they needed to essentially convert as though they were outsiders. They were called to repent and receive forgiveness. I should also point out that this would not have been understood primarily as individual. It wasn’t just about Mr. Jacob or Mrs. Martha. As I mentioned before, most the Israelites still thought of themselves as in exile, and exile was understood as the result of Israel’s sin as a nation. Therefore the call to repent and receive forgiveness would be understood as the means by which Israel might finally return from exile, and thus God’s kingdom would come.
And people […] their sins — The unrest of the time at a national level meant many people were ready to take an opportunity at seeing God’s kingdom come and receiving forgiveness in the return of Israel exile. People flocked to John, clearly enthusiastic about this prospect.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey — This well fits John’s persona as a prophet. In fact, it hints, when combined with the prophecy from before, that John is fulfilling the role of Elijah, who was expected to come before God’s kingdom came. Elijah was described similarly in 2 Kings 1:8, and Zechariah 13:4 reveals that this kind of dress was associated with prophets. He also clearly had no trouble with purity laws.
He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. — Again, the role of forerunner is apparent, which strengthens the Elijah parallel. John clearly sees himself not as the Messiah or fulfillment, but as called to prepare Israel for God’s kingdom by preaching repentance.
I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” — This curious statement has always been debated. What does it mean that the one to follow John will baptize with the Holy Spirit? There is no doubt that the Charismatic “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is not in view. No one in John’s day had such a concept, and indeed it did not exist for hundreds and hundreds, if not over a thousand, more years. More likely, the word “baptize” should be understood with its original meaning of “immerse,” so that the picture is of Israel being immersed in the Spirit, which would call to mind eschatological expectations that God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh when His kingdom came (Isa. 44:3, Ezek. 39:29, Joel 2:28).
The Theology Part
So what picture does this paint for us theologically? The first thing to note is, again, the sudden appearance. Carrying on the visionary or dream-like elements, the Messiah’s forerunner shows up in the wilderness and begins preaching. His message to Israel is that they must repent and be baptized for forgiveness of sins, the return from exile. The theme is clearly the coming of God’s kingdom. The prophecies cited make this abundantly clear, as well as the allusions to John’s role as the coming Elijah.
The specific combination of prophecies used here points to God’s return to Jerusalem as both a positive and negative occurrence, both salvation and judgment. All of the Jews would be expecting this, though later we will see just how subversive and shocking the outplaying of this actually is.
Other overlooked, but in my opinion very important here, is the way the coming of Jesus is identified with the return of God Himself to His people. Remember that both Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 in their original contexts refer to prophets announcing the coming of the Lord, Yahweh. Yet in Mark “Lord” clearly refers to the subject of verse 1, Jesus the Messiah. This theme will not stop in Mark or any of the Gospels. As we go on, we find it more and more impossible to separate Jesus from God. They are one, and this realization eventually became detailed church tradition in the glorious affirmation of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
One more important theological point to notice is the relationship of baptism, repentance, and forgiveness. For some verse 4 would be used with other texts to say that baptism is necessary for salvation. Yet this does not regard the original context of the verse. John was calling for Israel to repent and essentially reconvert to their God in preparation for the return from exile and coming kingdom. This baptism and the baptism instituted by the risen and glorified Christ are not exactly the same, being on opposite sides of the Cross.
What to Do about It
So, what do we get from this? How should the announcement of John the Baptist affect us today? Two main thoughts come to mind.
- John knew the time had come, and that God’s kingdom was about to break into the world through Jesus Christ. So he preached that message to all who would listen, baptizing them and teaching them to repent of their sins. Now Jesus has gone away, but will return, and we know that He could be back any time. We must therefore follow John’s example, preaching the Gospel of Jesus to all who will listen, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all Jesus commanded. Basically, the Great Commission Matthew 28:19-20.
- John also was constantly clear to make himself nothing and Christ the focus. We really ought to be doing the same way. So much of our approach as Christians tends to draw attention to the preachers, the speakers, the bloggers, and even us as individuals with our testimonies. Or in church, we may find ourselves trying to get the word out about Our Church, or its programs, music, or relevance. Our worship services may seem more like concerts about the band and lights than about the God who revealed Himself as Jesus Christ. But all of this would be wrong. Our energy should go altogether towards making Jesus the object of focus, desire, and proclamation. If our message is anything but Jesus, we are in trouble.