The gospel of Mark opens with the declaration that this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus as proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah. The gospel is the message of the enthronement and rule of a king. Mark presents his gospel as the beginning of that good news concerning Jesus as the king, the Christ, the Son of God. The scriptures declared that there would be a voice in the wilderness preparing the way for the arrival of the Lord. Now Mark turns his attention to a man named John.
John’s Role (1:4-5)
John appears in the wilderness, baptizing and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The call to the people is for repentance. This fits the quotation given in verses 2-3 which we noticed in the last lesson. The message that God is coming and reigns means that the people are to refine their hearts and be ready for the coming of the Lord. Readiness for the coming of the Lord and preparing the paths for his arrival means repenting. John is preparing the people’s hearts in repentance. Israel was being asked to turn away from disobedience and rebellion and start anew by turning toward the coming Christ. Within Judaism, they believed that Gentile converts to Judaism needed to be baptized, washing all the defilement of their past. Now all of Israel is called to be baptized because they were also in need of cleansing and washing away their defilements. The initial evidence of the genuine heart transformation is a willingness to be baptized. Pride does not allow oneself to undergo such a public, humbling act. But the true heart of repentance is submission. By coming out to John, confessing their sins and being baptized, showed their acknowledgment of disobedience toward God and their need to be cleansed.
I want us to see something very important in the introduction to the good news of Jesus. Sin is pictured as the fundamental human problem. The fundamental problem is not ignorance nor inherent human imperfection. Our problem is our active rebellion against the Creator God. What I want us to see is that this is not a bunch of people coming to be baptized as if this were some compulsory act only. These are people are who convicted by their sinfulness, confess those sins, and submit to baptism because their realize they have a sin problem which will be disastrous when the Lord arrives. Baptism must never be presented as the goal. Baptism is the result of hearts broken by sinfulness that are crying out to God in repentance and sorrow, desiring to be cleansed. Going into the wilderness symbolized this. What happened when Israel was in the wilderness during the days of the exodus? We noted in the last lesson that the wilderness was the staging ground for God’s redemption, leading the people to the promised land. But think about what else happened in the wilderness. The wilderness was the display of the faithlessness and sinfulness of Israel. These people are coming out from Jerusalem and being made separate because they are poor in spirit, mourning over their sins, admitting their guilt, and seeking reconciliation with the coming Lord.
John’s Description (1:6)
Now we are presented with a strange picture regarding John. John was clothed with camel’s hair, wore a leather belt, and ate locusts and wild honey. What a strange picture! Why tell us this? Why do we need to know this? We are not to think that John is some weird individual. An interesting scene is revealed to us in 2 Kings 1. A man named Ahaziah is the king over Israel, the northern nation. He fell through his upper chamber to the floor. The king sends messengers to inquire of false gods if he is going to survive the fall. A great prophet of God named Elijah meets these messengers and tells these messengers to not inquire of these false gods but to listen to the word of the Lord that the king will surely die. So the messengers go back and tell the king this message. Since the messengers do not know the name of the prophet, the king asks for a description of this prophet. Listen to the description:
They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.” (2 Kings 1:8 ESV)
Based on the description Ahaziah immediately knows that this is Elijah. In Zechariah 13:4 we see that the garment of a prophet was a garment of hair. When we read about John’s description in Mark 1:6 we are not to think that this is strange. Rather, we are to think that John is a prophet of God. Further, we are to think that John is Elijah. The last prophet of God in the Old Testament made this declaration as the final breath of God before John’s arrival. This is how the book of Malachi ends:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5–6 ESV)
Elijah is going to come and turn the hearts of the people before the great day of the Lord comes. This is exactly what we are seeing. John has appeared proclaiming repentance because he is the prophesied Elijah that would prepare the arrival of God. Further, his food indicates what is on his lips and in his mouth. Locusts were used by God as tools of judgment (Joel 1) and honey is the sweet taste of God’s word (Psalm 19; Ezekiel 3:3). John’s proclamation of the good news contains a message of judgment and a message of hope.
John’s Message (1:7-8)
But what exactly was John’s message? We hear his words in verses 7-8.
And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7–8 ESV)
Two messages are given by John. First, the One coming after him is more powerful than him and he is unworthy to unfasten his sandals. The coming One is so great that John is unworthy to even do what was considered the lowliest tasks in society. Do not forget that we just learned that John is a prophet of God on par with the great prophet Elijah. Jesus will later say that there was no one greater human who walked the earth than John (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28). Yet even John says that there is one greater and more powerful than him coming. He is so great that he is unworthy to perform the most menial of tasks for him. Trying to communicate this greatness in our language would be like saying that he is so great and powerful that I am unworthy to wash his car or clean his toilets. His greatness and power must be infinite, especially coming from the greatest human to ever walk the earth, John.
But John’s second message is of the greatest importance to show us who this Jesus is. Listen to the words of verse 8. “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus is going to baptize with the Holy Spirit. What does this mean? It is easy for people to start conjuring up a bunch of unscriptural ideas at this point. But we need to look back to the prophets to understand what this meant. Remember that Mark’s gospel is the good news that Isaiah prophesied. So what did Isaiah say about the Holy Spirit’s arrival?
Beat your breasts for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vine, for the soil of my people growing up in thorns and briers, yes, for all the joyous houses in the exultant city. For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks; until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places. (Isaiah 32:12–18 ESV)
Isaiah describes the sinfulness of the people 700 years before what we are reading about in Mark’s gospel. The people are being destroyed by God for their sins. The pleasant fields are turned into thorns and briers. The palace is forsaken and the city is deserted. The hills and watchtowers are full of wild animals rather than people. But notice the reversal: “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high.” The Spirit is going to be poured on the people. When that happens we will see great changes. Now the wilderness will become the fruitful field and a fruitful field becomes a forest. Justice will be in the wilderness and righteousness in the fruitful field. Righteousness, peace, quietness, and trust will be the result. The reversal of sins is coming. Devastation for sins will be reversed into God’s blessings when the Spirit is poured out. Listen to Isaiah again:
“But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’ and name himself by the name of Israel.” (Isaiah 44:1–5 ESV)
Notice the same picture is given here by Isaiah. The Spirit will be poured out of the people in the future like water on a thirsty land and like streams on dry ground. Listen to the hope and rejuvenation language: They shall spring up among the grass like willows by a flowing stream. The people will not be a desert but will be vibrant and have life. The people will call themselves by the name of the Lord.
What John is saying is the One coming after him who is more powerful than him is going to fulfill the promises of Isaiah to pour out the Spirit on them. He will baptize them with the Holy Spirit. These who are coming out to John, confessing their sins and being baptized are going to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is not miraculous spiritual gifts but a picture of God restoring his blessings upon the people, reversing the curses of sin, and drawing his people back to himself. God is going to renew his people when the Spirit is poured out. This is great hope in John’s message to Israel. The One coming is going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit. What Isaiah prophesied about the reversal, the hope, and the blessings of the Spirit being poured out is about to arrive.
Friends, this is the very same offer made to us. John preached it regarding what Jesus was going to do when he came. The apostles stood up in Acts 2 and preached that this is what Jesus did because he came. After being convicted of their sins, listen to what Peter proclaimed.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:38–41 ESV)
What was promised to Israel was also promised to all who were far off, the Gentiles. Notice it is the same message as John: to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. It is not some ritual but the result of a heart that is convicted by sin and desires cleaning and reconciliation with God. The confessing of our sins and being baptized, shows our acknowledgment of disobedience toward God and our need to be cleansed. We are convicted by our sinfulness, confess our sins, and submit to baptism because we realize we have a sin problem which will be disastrous when the Lord arrives. Baptism is the result of hearts broken by sinfulness that are crying out to God in repentance and sorrow, desiring to be cleansed. When we do then we also will enjoy a great reversal. God will reverse the curse from our sins so that we can be in relationship with God and called his children. We will belong to his kingdom and enjoy the promises of the new covenant. We will be reconciled to God and belong to him. But this all begins by seeing that sin is our fundamental problem. Sin is the issue and we must turn to God desiring forgiveness so that we can be in relationship with God. Repent and be baptized with this heart to receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit today.