John the Baptist is certainly one of the most intriguing figures in the entire Bible. Josephus devotes a large amount of material to him and Acts 19:1-7 indicates that John’s influence extended far beyond a few converts at the Jordan river. The serious student would do well to compare John and his message with what we know of the Essene community in the desert at Qumram. There are many similarities that may be more than coincidental.
Many scholars have pointed out that the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist is one of the most historically certain parts of the Gospel story, not only because it is recorded in all four gospels, but because the baptism of Jesus by John would have been an embarrassment to the early Christians, particularly if there were an active “John the Baptist Movement” existing at the same time as early Christianity. Yet all the Gospels agree that Jesus’ ministry is inaugurated in a formal sense with his baptism by John and that this baptism was the time of a special awareness of Jesus’ relationship to his heavenly Father.
Mark relates John to the Old Testament role of the messenger who would precede the Messiah. This was prophesied in Malachi 3:1ff and had become a popular expectation at the time of Jesus. The arrival of the messenger meant that the centuries of prophetic silence were over and God was once again speaking to His people. The messenger would prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the one who would cleanse and purify the nation. We cannot explore John’s self-understanding, but he comes to his ministry with a full awareness that he is taking up the prophet’s mantle. His dress is similar to Elijah in 2 King’s 1:8. His lifestyle speaks of sacrifice and withdrawal. His ministry in the desert is significant because the desert is where God has met and purified his people in the past. There is an intentionally about John that is not meant to manipulate but to proclaim that the prophet of God is once again bringing the message of God to His people at a critical time.
John’s message is simply summarized by Mark. First of all, he is preaching repentance. The greek word metanoia has been often explained as an “about face” or “change in direction,” but here it is an act of total life reorientation to the great reality of the approaching Kingdom. Nothing about what God is asking of his people in the Kingdom is a minor change of direction or “turning over a new leaf.” This is a radical life change that anchors everything in the approaching Kingdom and makes every decision from a Kingdom perspective. Modern Christianity needs to remember what John is preaching when we consider what Jesus asks of his followers.
Baptism was not something the Jews would have considered lightly. Converts to Judaism were baptized by other Jews. The Essenes baptized daily for purification. What John was calling for was a step of real humility for these proud Jews: to be reduced to the same level as a convert. To come as an outsider, as one who was unclean and unwashed. The way into the Kingdom is a way of humility from the very beginning. What would John have made of our modern “seeker-sensitive” worship services?
Mark spends very little time on the subject of baptism as compared with any of the other New Testament writers. What is plain is that this baptism was for the forgiveness of sins and was a public proclamation of readiness to follow the anointed one. Those baptized must publicly confess their sins and publicly participate in the ritual. Baptism has multiple meanings in the New Testament, but John sees this as a cleansing with water that precedes a cleansing/filling/washing by the most powerful agent of all- God’s Holy Spirit. Verse 8 shows that water baptism is never an end in itself, but a pointer, a picture of a greater, deeper spiritual reality.
Mark says that John’s message was focused on the one who was coming after him. First of all, this coming one would be more powerful than John. What John pointed to, he would actual produce. Secondly, the coming one would be greater, more worthy than John. John says he is not worthy to be the slave of this one. Most importantly of all, this coming one will Baptize with the Holy Spirit. The contrast could not be greater. John is preparing the way of the Lord and knows that the way requires repentance, radical reorientation and a recognition of the identity and worth of the one who is to come. This is a clear map of how we receive Christ today. We turn from sin, orient our life around a new master and recognize Him as Lord.
Some scholars have speculated that Jesus may have spent a considerable period of time with John before separating from him to his own ministry. Mark does nothing to help us with this possibility, but I believe it is quite likely (See John Meir, A Marginal Jew, Vol.2 for a detailed discussion.) There is no reason to believe that Jesus developed his message in a vacuum. It is quite likely that Jesus left home and either joined the Baptist or listened to him frequently. Luke’s story of the family relationship may be one way of hinting at this. How did Jesus come to hear God’s voice definitively? Could it have not been under the mentoring of John? Could John’s knowledge of the coming one not be a result of his increasing understanding of Jesus? Could it have not been possible that after a period of being the “student,” Jesus becomes the “teacher?” It is an intriguing possibility.
On the level of a story, a forerunner focuses our attention. Like a warm-up act, he brings the audience to the point of being ready to listen to the main performer. John only briefly appears on Mark’s stage, but he sets the framework for much of what we will hear from Jesus. Look at Mark 1:14-15. He connects the arrival of Jesus with what God spoke of hundreds of years before. He then provides the moment when Jesus most clearly sees his own identity and begins his own story in the world. Though John will appear later in the story, his main purpose occurs here, to begin playing the melody that Jesus will pick up and write into his own song of life, death and resurrection.
What does John have to say to us? Probably the modern religious person would like to put this wild man away as soon as possible. But his thunderous and clear introduction of Jesus will not let us take Jesus away from his Old Testament roots and the message that God was sending through the entire Bible. Elijah- the forerunner of John the Baptist- was an unfashionable and uncomfortable prophet in a time when evil had hired its own religious spokesmen. John appears in our world, standing on the pages of Mark and shouts some uncomfortable words to us. Let go of our sin. Confess your wrong. Humble yourself to receive forgiveness. Most of all, prepare to receive and follow the one who sends the Holy Spirit to cleanse us inside and out. Let John preach in our quiet chapels and quaint churches. We need him.
# QUESTIONS When you hear the word Baptism, what do you think about?
# What do you think John’s extremes in dress and style were meant to convey?
# What is the difference between a prophet and a preacher?
# Is repentance a feeling or an action?
# Why would a Jew humiliate himself by being baptized by John?
# Is it healthy to confess your sins?
# Why does God require humility as a quality in those who would know him? (What does humility replace?)
# Christians often disagree on what it means to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. What do you think John’s hearers would have thought about this?
# In Acts 19:1ff, Paul finds disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus. What had they missed about John’s message?
Recommended Resource: The New American Commentary Volume 23: Mark by James A. Brooks. Written for the average student. Not highly technical, but well-informed. A good commentary in 280 pages. Published in 1991 so aware of many new trends in Mark studies.