Text: Mark 1:1-8
The gospels begin in a time of anticipation. Things are not quite as they should be, and we are told that something big is on the way. In Mark’s gospel, this point is made through the strange imagery of a new sort of wilderness prophet. John the Baptist calls Israel to repentance for their sins, but he also says that his ministry is not the main attraction. The baptism for repentance is not the last word. Something else is coming, something bigger. In fact, someone else was coming. That person, the messiah, would bring in the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies. He would reverse the way things were, straightening what was crooked and raising up what was low, and he would finally reveal the glory of God on earth.
We shouldn’t miss the fact that John the Baptist is in the wilderness. Mark 1:4 says that “John came baptizing in the wilderness,” and in Matthew’s gospel we are told, “John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (Matthew 3:1). This is especially significant when we remember that John’s parents were temple servants who lived in a city in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39). That means that John chose to go to the wilderness. It was a conscious decision for his special ministry of prophecy.
The wilderness obviously carried certain connotations. It brought to mind times of trial, temptation, and, most of all, repentance. Think of Israel wandering in the wilderness, David hiding there while on the run from Saul, and Elijah in the cave (we’ll come back to him, of course). The wilderness is also where the prophet from Isaiah 40 comes, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert.’” John is the fulfillment of that prophecy. He is that prophet in the wilderness.
The expression “a voice crying in the wilderness” has come to have symbolic value. It doesn’t mean that someone has to literally be in the wilderness. It just means that they have to be a lone voice speaking out against a problematic situation. And that’s what John is doing here. Remember, hardly anyone else was in the wilderness. John went out there to make a statement. The real wilderness was Israel itself, its sinful and confused state. John separated himself from ordinary life in order to critique the city, even the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple. For John, those things were all corrupt, and the great need was repentance and preparation for the coming of the kingdom, which was imminent.
Another important detail is that John the Baptist looks like Elijah. “John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist” (Mark 1:6). That might not mean much to you at first, but it was not the way that normal people dressed in 1st century Israel. No, this style of dress was also a prophetic act. It connected John to Elijah. 2 Kings 1:8 says that Elijah was “a hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist,” the same description we are given of John.
And John didn’t just look like Elijah. According to prophecy, he was Elijah. Malachi 3:1 says, “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me.” That verse was quoted by Mark in his gospel. But Malachi 4:5-6 adds to this, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” This is John. Luke explains this connection in his first chapter:
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John… And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:13, 16-17)
Jesus also taught this about John: “he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt. 11:14).
So just like the wilderness setting, John’s identification with Elijah teaches us about his ministry. He was a new Elijah, preaching against an apostate Israel just as the old Elijah did. But he was also doing the thing which the prophesied Elijah would do. He prophesies about the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
Baptism and the Great and Dreadful Day
When we keep in mind that this new Elijah was supposed to go before “the great and dreadful day of the Lord,” then John the Baptist’s sermon makes perfect sense. Listen to what he says in Matthew 3:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! …Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Matt. 3:2, 7-12)
Mark only focuses on the baptism part of that sermon, but we should understand it as all being connected. John is baptizing for repentance, and the reason that he is baptizing for repentance is because the one coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And this baptism with the Holy Spirit will bring fiery judgment. So you’d better be ready.
Now, it might strike you as odd to connect the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” with the great and dreadful day of the Lord. You are probably accustomed to identifying the former expression with an individual’s salvation experience or what is sometimes called regeneration. The latter expression is more like the end of the world and the final judgment. But the two are actually meant to be united, and John’s preaching assumes their unity.
Look back at Isaiah 40, one of the prophecies which John is fulfilling. It says:
Make straight in the desert
A highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough places smooth;
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
And all flesh shall see it together;
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Is. 40:3b-5)
We can see what is supposed to happen after John’s ministry. The world will be shaken. Valleys are raised up while mountains are leveled. Crooked things are straightened out and rough places are smoothed out. This is a universal cosmic revolution, and while the end result is justice and equality—everything where it ought to be—the process is violent. “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” and whenever the glory of the Lord is revealed it involves fire, blinding light, and deafening sound. All of the wicked will be laid to waste, and the people of God will be given the spoils of battle.
This means that the baptism of the Holy Spirit which believers are given is a foretaste of the final judgment. They receive it as a blessing because, by faith, they are united to Christ and His righteousness. Those who are baptized without faith receive only worse condemnation.
But we may have skipped over something important. You see, we here in this room are used to thinking of water baptism and/or spiritual salvation when we hear the expression “baptize with the Holy Spirit,” but in Mark chapter 1 that’s not actually so obvious. The water baptism is obvious because that was what John the Baptist was doing. He was in the Jordan River baptizing people with water. But he actually contrasts what he is doing with what Jesus will do. “I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). So why connect Jesus’ baptizing with the Holy Spirit with water?
Well, in one sense we shouldn’t. The actual baptism of the Holy Spirit, the reality to which all the other symbols point, is the final judgment and recreation of the whole world. That is what John has in mind, as is obvious from his preaching, and his expectation, like most 1st century Jews, was that the messiah would bring this judgment right then and there.
But as we have said before, Jesus didn’t bring this final judgment, at least not in the way anyone expected, at His first coming. Instead He died, was resurrected, and then left. As He left, however, He instructed His disciples to baptize. And not long after He left, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples, and then they immediately started baptizing people. Baptism became a regular part of their ministry, and it does show up in the writings of both Paul and Peter in connection with “end of the world” like experiences. Paul writes:
…as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3-4)
Baptism is death and resurrection. Peter adds to this the connection between baptism and the flood:
…in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him. (1 Peter 3:20-22)
And so baptism is a symbol of death and resurrection, and it is a symbol of cataclysmic judgment. It means both, and it shows us a picture of the end of the world. When we are baptized, we are put into the end times. We die and are resurrected in Christ. We are taken out of the old world of darkness and brought into the new creation of light. We cannot see this new world, because it is spiritual and therefore invisible, but it is going to be made manifest one day. We have even been given the final judgment early. Because we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we receive His judgment. We have the final judgment now, by faith, and that therefore makes judgment a means of salvation for believers.
Just as 1st century Israel was in the wilderness when John preached, so too we are in the wilderness today. This does not apply to only one nation or period in history. Until the 2nd coming of Jesus, all believers are pilgrims passing through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. And so we do not place all our hopes in this life. We don’t identify it as our true home. It does not command our full allegiance.
This doesn’t mean that we do not care for the world nor try to participate in the world. That’s not what it meant for John. He did have some peculiar habits, it is true, but those were all for his prophetic job. But ultimately, he preached a message of repentance and even, we might say, of a sort of social justice. He told the soldiers to stop stealing from those who were being occupied. He told the tax collectors to only collect taxes and not to add extra fees atop them. And he told those who had plenty to give to those who did not. It’s interesting what he didn’t say. He didn’t say that no one should ever be a soldier because worldly armies are always evil. He didn’t say that no one should be a tax collector because tax is theft. He didn’t say that you can’t have lots of clothes, food, or money. No, instead he preached about the proper way to use all of those worldly things and to follow those worldly callings. And so pilgrims can most certainly be “in” this world, even if they are not “of” it. And pilgrims can be involved in public holiness.
John also preached repentance, and this is something that we should be serious about. We cannot hope to be a prophetic voice against a sinful world if we have our own pet sins that we tolerate and even defend. We also cannot have those sins which we think are just “not a big deal” and so don’t ever get serious about. We need a more comprehensive and universal repentance, and it must start with the people of God. Each week we confess those things which we have done which we ought not to have done, as well as those things we have left undone which ought to have been done. We need to get serious about repentance, and that means we need to repent of all of our sins.
Finally we need to have a sort of eschatological urgency. Once again, I don’t mean that we should be anxious and fearful that “Jesus is coming back at any moment” but we should approach our sins as if their judgment is near, very near. We should behave as if God were present—because He is! We shouldn’t waste anytime dealing with our problems, restoring broken relationships, plucking out sinning eyes, and loving our neighbors. John says that the messiah is coming and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of him. Repent and believe. And make hay while the sun shines. Otherwise, you might find that hay on the bottom of the threshing room floor.
And so let us learn from John the Baptist. We must be a prophetic people. We must be a holy people. And we must be an urgent people. Let us get started today.
Let us pray.