As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 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 1:2-8 ESV
John Mark is first spoken of in Acts 13. When Paul sets out on his first missionary journey with Barnabas, we are informed that Mark was with them for assistance (v. 5); however, for an unknown reason, Mark abandons the journey and returns to Jerusalem (v. 13). Though we do not know exactly why Mark left, we do know that in chapter 15 Paul is about to leave on his second journey and Barnabas wants to take Mark with them. Mark’s leaving had upset Paul so much that he got into a sharp argument with Barnabas, and in the end, they left their own ways. However, we do see from Paul’s later letters that his and Mark’s relationship was fixed. For while awaiting his death, Paul asks Timothy to bring Mark to him because he is helpful (2 Tim. 4:11) We also know now that Barnabas’ show of grace was not in vain because Mark would eventually become a disciple of Peter whom the apostle referred to as his son (1 Peter 5:13). The early writings of church history consistently tell that it was from this close relationship with Peter that Mark was able to compose an account of Jesus’ work on earth, since Mark himself was not an eyewitness.
JOHN APPEARED // VERSES 2-8
After taking a 30,000-foot overview of Mark’s Gospel while planted firmly within the book’s first verse, we now proceed into the narrative proper, which begins (briefly) before the beginning that we only just discussed. In these seven quick verses, Mark emphasizes to us that Jesus’ good news did not begin in a vacuum; rather, His arrival was promised since humanity first fell into sin and was planned in eternity past (see Ephesians 3:11).
Mark continues his Gospel by immediately moving into a composite citation from two verses of the Old Testament. Verse 2 is citing Malachi 3:1, while verse 4 cites Isaiah 40:3. He places the two together in order to emphasize that both prophets were predicting the same event or, more accurately, person. Both predict a forerunner to the long-awaited Christ, a herald who would prepare God’s people for the King’s monumental arrival. Like Elijah so long ago, this messenger would cry from the wilderness for the people of Israel to repent of their sins and to give their worship to the LORD alone.
Mark then wastes no time introducing us to one who fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi: John. Luke presents us with the narrative of John’s long-barren mother, Elizabeth, who conceived after the angel Gabriel announced John’s coming to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah. But those are but a few of the many trimmings of Mark; instead, he introduces John with the same kind of frankness that he introduced Jesus: John appeared. The voice of one crying in the wilderness had arrived, prophetic garb and all, and he was calling all of Israel to a baptism of repentance.
Verse 5 informs us of John’s popular reception, telling us that all of Judea and Jerusalem went out to hear him. This was likely because John’s prophetic ministry was both new and familiar. As we noted last week, the four hundred years between the Old and New Testaments were marked by God temporarily ceasing to reveal more of His Word. Thus, John’s appearance in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s skin and living off of locust and honey, was highly invocative of prophets of old, particularly of Elijah.
He was a return to the ancient days within Scripture, while also declaring something somewhat new. You see, John’s message was rather different from the other prophets before him. Like all of the Old Testament, the prophets gave many predictions of the coming Christ; however, their immediate ministry was to declare the Word of God, which is why the phrase “thus says the LORD” occurs so frequently in Isaiah through Malachi. Yet verses 7-8 summarize John’s preaching as follows, 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.
Do you notice the difference? The Old Testament prophets essentially said, “Here’s what the LORD has to say…” John, on the other hand, told everyone, “The LORD is on His way; get ready!” In other words, while God once sent His message through the prophets, He sent John to declare the message of His own arrival. Of course, as Keller points out, these verses not-so-subtly declare the divinity of Christ by identifying Him with the LORD, that is, with Yahweh, the true and living God. Indeed, only the divinity of Christ can justify John’s humble declaration that he was not worthy to fulfill an already altogether servile task like untying the strap of His sandals.
HE MUST INCREASE
Now that we have scanned the overall teaching of these verses, let us draw forth a few points on how they teach, rebuke, correct, and train us in righteous. Or, as the Puritans called it, what are the uses of this text?
First, under the Spirit’s guidance, Mark included the two Old Testament quotations for good reason, for they reveal that while the gospel of Jesus began with His coming to earth, it was by no means an unlooked-for event. Even from the very beginning of humanity’s fall into sin, the Christ and the new beginning that He would bring was promised as the Seed of woman who would bruise the Serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). The Christ also was promised as the Offspring of Abraham through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). The Christ was then promised as the Son of David whose throne would endure forever and whose kingdom would have no end (2 Samuel 7:12-13). Indeed, we saw in chapters 2 and 7 of Daniel further promises of this eternal King. The Old Testament Scriptures scatter jewels of the Messianic promise with both hands.
All of this should also remind us that we cannot properly read the New Testament without understanding its rooted context within the Old Testament. Because we find the Old Testament generally more difficult to understand than the New (not to mention because it is so much larger), it can be tempting to rank it as lower in worth and value than the New. Indeed, the road away from biblical inerrancy usually begins by jettisoning the Old Testament. Yet just as the Old Testament is incomplete without the New, the New Testament is untethered without the Old. Both are God’s Word by the Spirit’s inspiration of their human authors, and we will be malnourished followers of Christ (at best) if we do not regularly consume the Scriptures from Genesis to Malachi.
Second, John’s ascetic lifestyle lent credibility to his message, since he had clearly established himself as one who was not swayed by the world around him. In Matthew 11, Jesus responded to the news of John’s imprisonment by asking the crowd about John, saying, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses” (vv. 7-8). No, John was no reed, blowing here and there by the winds of culture; instead, he clearly and blatantly stood opposed to the vapid and doomed delights of the world.
Of course, as followers of Christ, few will be called to live John’s proto-monastic way of life; we are still called, nevertheless, to a holy life that distinguishes us from the world. For this, Jesus is our prefect example. Unlike John, we find Jesus celebrating at wedding feasts and enjoying meals with others. But Jesus was still distinct. True, He ate with tax-collectors and sinners, yet He never affirmed their sins but drew them into repentance. Jesus did not separate from the world like John did, but both were nevertheless killed as ones who did not belong to this world. In Matthew 11:18-19, Jesus Himself highlighted the differences between the ministries of John and His own, yet their similar reception:
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
Like Jesus, we are not called to separate ourselves from the world nor to live a life of extreme poverty like John did. Yet as the Spirit sanctifies us more and more into the image of Christ, we should gradually radiate the kind of distinctiveness that marked both our Lord and His herald in the wilderness.
Third, we should not miss the opportunity to reflect upon the seasonal popularity of John’s ministry. As we just read, John would quickly be accused of having a demon, and he would also be arrested and killed. But at the start, he enjoyed a popular reception. J. C. Ryle offers the follow reflection upon all of Judea and Jerusalem going out to him to confess their sins and be baptized:
The fact here recorded is one that is much overlooked. We are apt to lose sight of him who went before the face of our Lord, and to see nothing but the Lord himself. We forget the morning star in the full blaze of the sun. And yet it is clear that John’s preaching arrested the attention of the whole Jewish people, and created an excitement all over Palestine. It aroused the nation from its slumber, and prepared it for the ministry of our Lord, when he appeared. Jesus himself says, ‘He was a burning and a shining light; ye were willing to rejoice for a season in his light’ (John 5:35).
We ought to remark here how little dependence is to be placed on what is called ‘popularity.’ If ever there was one who was a popular minister for a season, John the Baptist was that man. Yet of all the crowds who came to his baptism, and heard his preaching, how few, it may be feared, were converted! Some, we may hope, like Andrew, were guided by John to Christ. But the vast majority, in all probability, died in their sins. Let us remember this whenever we see a crowded church. A great congregation no doubt is a pleasing sight. But the thought should often come across our minds, ‘How many of these people will reach heaven at last?’ It is not enough to hear and admire popular preachers. It is no proof of our conversion that we always worship in a place where there is a crowd. Let us take care that we hear the voice of Christ himself, and follow him.
Indeed, since the digital age has brought the celebrity pastor with it, we should perhaps take even greater heed of Ryle’s warning than the people of his own day. Just as many in the world idolize celebrities, so may we have the temptation to elevate too highly our favorite preacher/theologian. Many times, this comes through no fault of the esteemed speaker (as was the case with John) but only from our propensity toward hero-worship. For me, the teachings of John Piper were the stone that sparked my avalanche descent into reading scripturally drenched writings from men like Augustine, John Calvin, Thomas Watson, and C. S. Lewis. Yet each of those men, who I have never met, are beneficial to me for one reason alone: they urge me ever further to Christ and into His Word. This is the proper place of all teachers of Scripture, regardless of popularity.
This leads us naturally to our fourth use of this text: like John, all who preach Christ must be ready to fade into insignificance so long as Jesus is exalted. John the Baptist’s preaching was a supreme example of this principle. John understood very well that he was merely a steppingstone to aid others in reaching Christ. His ministry was, by design, destined to flicker away from view as the torch of the Messiah shined forth for all to see. In John 3, we hear John himself stating this fact. The conversation began with John’s disciples expressing their distress that John’s audience was beginning to wane as people instead went to hear Jesus. In verses 27-30, John answers them, saying,
A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 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.
This ought to be the goal of all who labor in ministry for Christ, which is not merely we who are called ministers but the entire body of Christ. He is the goal and glory, not us. We should long to see Jesus’ name exalted and praised across the whole earth and count ourselves the most favored of all people to merely be among that great throng of worship. Indeed, did Jesus not say that the church was His to build (Matthew 16:18)? We would each do well to remember that while God graciously uses us to expand His kingdom, none of us are necessary, nor is any congregation necessary. Our great blessing is to be His heralds like John was, to make the Son of God known that He might receive the worship that His name rightly deserves.
Finally, let us reflect on John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Sometime during the intertestamental period baptism had apparently become a common practice for proselytes in Judaism as a public display of the removal of their uncleanness. John, however, was notably not calling only Gentiles to repent of their sins; he called the Jews, the people of God, to repent. This was a particularly counter-cultural message since the Jews had increasingly grown in pride of their chosen status with God that no other nation possessed. John’s message was a pointed shot at their superiority complex, reminding them that they were not God’s chosen people because they were any less sinful. Indeed, they still greatly needed to confess and repent of their sins. Thus, John’s baptism was for them as well.
As Ryle noted above, while John’s ministry was widely popular for a season, the novelty soon wore off and many likely moved on with their lives. Indeed, there is a subtle shift of language between verses 4 and 5. In verse 4, we are told that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance, while in verse 5 we find people coming to confess their sins. Repentance and confession are, of course, intimately connected because repentance begins with confession. Real repentance, however, is more than merely confessing sin. A striking example of this difference is found in Pharaoh’s words to Moses and Aaron after the seventh plague. He said, “This time I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong” (Exodus 9:27). While this was a confession of his sin, Pharaoh certainly had not repented of his sin, for verse 34 then reveals “when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder has ceased, he sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants.” We know that Pharaoh’s confession was not a part of genuine repentance because when the opportunity came again, he happily chose to return to his sin. Instead, David’s prayer in Psalm 51 is a powerful model of true repentance. The prayer reveals that David desired something deeper than mere forgiveness; he prayed: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (v. 10). David wanted to be a new man. He longed for God to uproot and overturn his very desire for sin.
Such repentance as David made should be the lifeblood of the Christian. Indeed, we should be a people in constant repentance, for we know that we will still have sin to be confessed until in death Christ takes us or He returns for His bride. But we also know that God calls us to mortify our sin, to stake it to Christ’s cross. Yet we are only able to gradually conquer sin through the process of sanctification because Jesus already atoned entirely for our sins once for all upon the cross, which we call our justification. Today, we are no longer baptized in the baptism of John, but the waters of baptism still function in the same manner. As John said in verse 8, he had no power to truly change anyone’s heart because he could not baptize anyone with the Holy Spirit. Jesus, however, has done that very thing for us. At the beginning of our conversion to Christ, all believers are now given the baptism of the Spirit, which is rarely as great a spectacle as the Spirit’s first and purposeful arrivals in the book of Acts. Yet the Spirit arrives, nevertheless. As we read in Ephesians 1, the Spirit, dwelling within us, is the guarantee (or down payment) of the complete inheritance that we have in Christ. Paul likewise declared in Romans 8 that it is the Spirit’s work within us that testifies to our adoption as sons and daughters of God the Father. Just as John’s baptism looked forward to this outpouring of God’s Spirit upon His redeemed people, our baptism today in the name of the Triune God looks back upon the work of conversion already made through the Holy Spirit. But like John’s baptism, baptism today still does not give the Holy Spirit; rather, it testifies that the Spirit has already been given. It is still a public declaration that we are sinners in need of God’s gracious cleaning, but now it also symbolizes death and resurrection, that we have latched ourselves onto Christ’s cross now with the hope of sharing in His resurrection still to come. Like our moment of justification, we are only baptized once, yet that physical cleansing is a perpetual reminder that we have been brought out of the darkness of sin and into the light of Christ. Therefore, although repentance is displayed in baptism, our immersion should only be the beginning of a life of repenting and drawing ever closer to our Lord and Savior.
There is obviously far more that we could say about the life and witness of John the Baptist; however, we must content ourselves to see that he was clearly not his own. John gladly lived in the shadow of Another, giving his life (as well as his death) for the One would give His life as a ransom for John’s sin. John prepared the way for the Lamb of God who was preparing to take away the sins of the world. In all of this, we learn best from John by looking beyond him to the Christ he proclaimed.
 “Since Mark equates John with the one who would “prepare the way for the Lord,” by clear inference it means he is equating Jesus with the Lord himself, with God Almighty. The Lord God; the long-awaited divine King who would rescue his people; and Jesus—they are somehow one and the same person” (King’s Cross, 4).
 This is the reason that I generally attempt to bounce back and forth between preaching the Old and New Testaments.
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 3.