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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Preparing the Way


"…After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit."

Mark 1:7-8

We don’t have to be in any doubt that Mark’s gospel is an account about the person of Jesus, because Mark makes that so clear in the first verse of his book - ‘The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God’.

Nor, is he leaving us in any doubt about who he thinks Jesus was. He thinks he was the Messiah - the long awaited deliverer of Israel, foretold of in the Jewish scriptures. And he thinks, Jesus was the Son of God.

Jesus is not merely an earthly Messiah according to Mark, he’s a heavenly Messiah. He’s not an ordinary human being - he’s a son of man in his humanity and the Son of God in divinity.

How does Mark know about Jesus, such that he can speak with this kind of confidence? Was he with Jesus before his death? Was he an eyewitness of what Jesus did and said? It’s possible. If he was, he was certainly very young.

More likely, Mark is acting like an historian in his account. Although the book doesn’t tell us Mark wrote it, within about 30 years of the book’s writing, there are records attributing Mark’s gospel to Mark’s authorship.

And the ‘Mark’ in question is someone we’re familiar with because of our series in Acts. This Mark is the Mark who occasioned the dispute between Paul and Barnabas in Acts.

He’s the Mark who abandoned Paul and Barnabas during their early missionary journey and who Paul was unwilling to take with him on a second trip.

He’s the Mark who was the cousin of Barnabas and whose mother hosted the disciples in her house when Peter was arrested and put in prison, before an angel led him to freedom.

He’s the Mark who the Apostle Peter - one of Jesus’ three closest friends on earth - called ‘his son’ because they were so close and spent so much time together.

He’s the Mark who Paul, in spite of earlier reservations, came to embrace as ‘useful to him in his ministry’ and to whom he entrusted some of his letters for delivery to the churches whilst Paul was incarcerated in Rome.

Which is important because, according to Luke, Paul saw the risen Jesus, and, because so much of the New Testament is made up of Paul’s attestation to the nature, person and work of Jesus.

That means Mark’s gospel, which was written within the lifetimes of Paul and Peter and of the women who attended the tomb of Jesus on the day of resurrection, who were acquainted with his own mother, were all still alive as firsthand witnesses of Jesus.

And Mark had access to them all!

I think it’s likely Paul would have read Mark’s gospel account of Jesus whilst they were together in Rome which is where Mark most likely wrote it. We know that Peter was with Mark in Rome too from 1 peter 5:13. In fact the book reads like a book that was written for a diverse audience - the kind there would have been in Rome.

Mark takes time, for example, to translate quotes in Aramaic for the benefit of his audience. He takes time to explain some distinctly Jewish practices as though some of his audience might not be familiar with Jewish custom. He places an emphasis on cross-bearing discipleship - writing at a time when Christians in Rome were feeling the heat ramping up for their beliefs.

Mark’s account is the first of its kind and maybe he senses that, in the midst of some persecution, fellow believers were starting to doubt the good news about Jesus, and so an account of his life and works and words would be faith intensifying for floundering Christians.

Maybe it will serve us in that way for us too as we work our way through it.

And as we do work our way through it, we’re going to encounter the mystery of Jesus, and the polarising effect of Jesus, the inauguration of the kingdom of Jesus, and the cost of following Jesus as key themes of Mark’s narrative.

I find it curious, maybe you do too, that Matthew and Luke start with the birth of Jesus, John starts with the eternality of Jesus, but Mark starts with the Good News about Jesus.

Where is he getting the idea that the Messiah means good news for his audience? He’s getting it from the most prominent of all the Old Testament Jewish prophets, Isaiah (verse 2). And he proceeds to give us some direct quotes to show us specifically where he’s getting the idea from.

Quote 1 which forms the second half of verse 2, however, is not a quote from Isaiah, it’s a quote from Malachi - Malachi 3:1 – but don’t let that worry you, Mark’s not making a blunder in the first verse of his book.

It was a common approach to use the most prominent source to introduce multiple citations. The second quote is from Isaiah and so Mark gets our attention by headlining Isaiah in his preface.

He can do that because, these two quotes from different Old Testament prophets - Malachi and Isaiah - are saying identical things.

Let’s not miss Mark’s purpose here. His aim is to prove to us that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah. He wants to show us that God anticipated and foretold the coming of an individual who would deliver his people.

And Mark wants us to know that he is convinced that Jesus was that individual and that we should believe it too. So, he’s going to try to convince us.

The way he’s going to do that is by presenting us with 400-year-old and 700-year-old prophecies, paying attention to their details, and then comparing those details with the eyewitness accounts he has assimilated about Jesus’ first days of ministry.

So, let’s roll with Mark here and see if we see what he sees. The Malachi quote at the end of verse 2 says, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way’. Now before we go further, jump with me to verse 4. Mark’s words ‘And so…‘ indicate that Mark is making a link between what he just quoted before and what he’s about to tell us.

So, what is he about to tell us? He’s telling us that a character called John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness at the time when Jesus was just beginning to teach, and he had a message, which he preached to the whole countryside of the area called Judea.

The message he preached was a message of repentance and of the forgiveness of sins. Mark gives us a direct quote from John’s message - a summary of his message if you like. Now what will it be? Will it be a message of self-promotion?

If he were sat here would he be thinking, ‘if only I’d had this social media thing back in the day, imagine what a following I could have amassed!’ He wouldn’t!

Let’s hear his message, verse 7. ‘After me comes one more powerful than I, the straps of whose saddles I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I will baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’.

Maybe not an insignificant pointer about the way we use our social media. John’s message isn’t about himself it’s about someone else who comes after him.

According to John, this individual is more powerful than he is and he’s more worthy than he is. John says about himself, that he’s not even worthy to take the lowest servant role and untie the master’s sandals - groveling on the ground before him - this person is so valuable, so worthy, so esteemed.

In John’s mind - a Jew though he is - there’s a human being coming, who God would be happy to have him bow before in homage. That’s surprising because, there’s not a single angel of heaven in the Old Testament who accepts the homage of humans. There’s not a single commandment in the Old Testament that doesn’t derive from the exclusive right God has that every human being homage him and no other.

John would have been very familiar with all the accounts and all the commandments, and he’s clearly concerned with sin - his message revolves around repentance and forgiveness after all, so it’s not like he’s one for advocating disobedience - but according to Mark he has no hesitation in paying homage to the person who is about to appear on the scene!

Mark is saying that the eyewitness accounts, which he heard first hand, of the arrival on the scene of John the Baptist, are the fulfilment of the 700-year-old prophetic words of Isaiah and the 400-year-old words of Malachi. He’s making that link!

Now let’s go back to the quotes to see why that’s important. The words that Malachi prophesied are in the mouth of God, so when it says ‘I’ the person is God. ‘I, God, will send my messenger’. Who’s the messenger? That would be John the Baptist according to Mark. He’s the one who’s on the scene, preaching a message. ‘I, God, will send my messenger, John the Baptist, ahead of you’.

Who’s the ‘you’ then? Well, Mark wants us to make the connection that the ‘you’ is Messiah. ‘I, God, will send my messenger, John the Baptist, ahead of you, Messiah’. That’s the connection Mark is making for us.

Mark is saying, we can be confident that Jesus is the Messiah because, the details of John’s appearing in the wilderness and his pointing up Jesus, dovetail with the details of the prophecies of Malachi and Isaiah.

In fact, Isaiah’s prophecy contains even more detail. ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness’ that’s John the Baptist according to Mark. ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’ that’s the Messiah - Jesus in view, according to Mark.

So, we’re absolutely primed now for the appearing of Jesus at the beginning of this account. But critically we’re primed to receive him notas any random influencer who pops up out of nowhere. We’re primed to receive Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, powerful in word and deed, and worthy to receive our fullest attention and adoration. We’re primed to receive him as a long awaited, anointed, deliverer-king because that’s what ‘Messiah’ means.

Now, I know what it’s like to come at Jesus with doubt or skepticism - perhaps that’s you this morning.

I hope you feel Mark helping you here. He’s kicked us off with ample and compelling reason to take Jesus seriously - in more than just an earthly, human way - in a cosmically significant, life-defining, future-orientating kind of way.

Ok, so John has this message that he’s preaching to the Judean countryside. Where’s that? Well, if you can think of the geography of Israel, you have Lake Galilee in the north, and the Dead Sea or Salt Sea in the south and the river connecting the two, running north to south, is the famous river Jordan.

The Judean countryside was located to the west of the river Jordan between the coast of the salt sea and the capital city, Jerusalem. In this countryside was the ancient city of Jericho. Jericho was the first city that the Israelites of Joshua’s day encountered after Joshua led them across the river Jordan out of the wilderness and into the promised land – 1400 years before Jesus.

Now, Isaiah’s prophecy in verse 3 places the one calling out to the people - namely John the Baptist - in the wilderness. That means east of the Jordan, on the opposite side of the river from the Judean countryside where all these people are coming to him from (verse 5). The apostle John confirms it for us in his gospel, when he tells us that John the Baptist was baptising at Bethany ‘on the other side of the Jordan’ - namely on the wilderness side.

And, as all these people are coming to John in the wilderness, they’re confessing their sins in accordance with John’s message and John is baptising them in the Jordan river verse 5 says.

There are at least three very unusual things about this which we need to see. The first is: it’s unusual that so many Jewish people should make the journey away from land that they regard as theirs by God-given right - and cross the Jordan and enter the wilderness. It’s like a reversal of Joshua.

The second thing that’s unusual is that the movement of the people is accompanied by what seems to be a collective sense of their own transgression - an owning of their sin and a confession of their sin. That’s not normal.

And lastly, it’s unusual because, upon their confession of sin and their repentance, they’re being baptised - dunked in the Jordan by John. And we’ve got to understand that that’s a brand-new practice! We don’t find the practice of baptism anywhere in the Old Testament, so where did that come from? In fact, it’s so new and unusual, John gets nick-named ‘John the Baptist’ because of it.

Is it because John is this super charismatic guy who invented a novel way of doing things that people are flocking to him?

I doubt it, verse 7 gives us a sketch of John and it’s not very impressive. He sounds like a nomad, wearing camel hair and a leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey, and presumably living out under the stars. He doesn’t sound like the kind of person people would flock to.

Mark gives us this little sketch of John the Baptist for more purpose than to prove it wasn’t for John they were heading into the wilderness. The real reason he gives it us is because he wants us to connect John the Baptist with one of the most prominent figures in the Jewish Old Testament - namely Elijah.

Mark already quoted Malachi, and now he’s making the connection with another verse in Malachi where God promises to send Elijah to the people of Israel. Mark is saying, ‘John is the Elijah who was to come’. And Jesus confirms that fact later to his disciples.

2 Kings 1 & 2 describe Elijah as having a garment of hair and a leather belt round his waist, just like John here. And it describes how Elijah rolled up his cloak and struck the river Jordan, parting the waters so that he and Elisha could cross into the wilderness. And here we find John baptising in the Jordan.

So, what’s the significance of all this? Here we have John and he’s anticipating the imminent arrival on the scene of Jesus - verse 9 confirms that. And we have all these unusual events going on.

We’ve got a man who’s foregrounding Jesus on the wilderness side of the Jordan, calling people to repentance and to receive the forgiveness of their sins.

We’ve got a new practice called baptism and people coming in their droves to the wilderness side of the Jordan confessing their sins and being baptised.

We’ve got Old Testament characters of huge significance, like Elijah, being invoked.

We’ve got Old Testament prophecies with kingdom implications being fulfilled.

And we’ve got exceptional things being promised of Jesus. Namely, that he will take this outward form of baptism that John has inaugurated and make it internal; life changing, power of God indwelling, radically human-nature renovating.

Seeing what happens when Jesus appears on the scene helps us make sense of it. Mark says Jesus came from Nazareth in the north near Galilee to where John was in the wilderness, and he was baptised by John in the river. Which may seem strange to us - it did to me.

Mark says that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So, does Jesus’ baptism mean that he needed to repent and have his sins forgiven? I think Mark would say ‘read on and you’ll see that is clearly not the case’.

So, what does it mean that Jesus was baptised by John? Here’s what I believe it means. John’s message of repentance means that he was urging the people to turn to the Lord their God. They had turned away from him and he was urging them to admit their sin of turning away and to re-turn to God.

The baptism that they underwent was a confession of their sin. The Apostle Peter picks up the water judgment of the global flood of ancient times and applies it to baptism. He says, ‘baptism is a pledge of a clear conscience’ (1 Peter 3:20-21). So, the Judean people were coming to John and being baptised as the pledge of clear conscience towards God.

But no sin can simply be purged by water. Sin must be purged by blood. ‘Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness for sins’ Hebrews says.

Mark is taking us on a journey with Jesus that has a bloody destination - the cross of Calvary. And this baptism that Jesus goes through is a declaration on day-one of his ministry that he will be the one who will bear the judgment of God for the sins of the people.

That’s why, when Jesus comes up out of the river something unique happens. This didn’t happen to any of the others who received the baptism of John, only to Jesus - ‘he saw heaven being torn open’, verse 10 says. ‘And a voice came from heaven: “you are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”’ - verse 11.

Isaiah and Malachi both foresaw days when the heavens would be opened, and abundant blessings would flow down on the earth. God is eager now to fulfil his promise - he tears heaven open and says in an audible voice, ‘here is my abundant blessing; with him I am well pleased!’ ///

So, let’s try to sum up. I think Mark is pointing us to the deeply profound significance of the arrival of Jesus in his opening verses.

Jesus has declared, by his baptism with these people, that he has come to deal with people’s sin - to bear the judgment of God for their sake. But more than that, by his baptism he has declared that he will not only die for them but also rise for them. That he will die and as the first fruits of the resurrection, rise so that all that are connected with him - baptised into death with him and raised to life with him - will inherit eternal resurrection life! That’s good news!

The place where all this is happening is huge too. Jesus, whose name means the same as Joshua, will translate God’s people from the wilderness of sin and shame into the promised land of righteousness. As Joshua went down into the Jordan with the people - leaving the wilderness - and came up out of the Jordan on the other side, so Jesus goes down into the Jordan with the people and brings them up in the promised land of eternal life.

And you might say, ‘what has all that got to do with me?’ Well, as Mark - also called John-Mark - has both Jewish and Greek roots, his foregrounding of Jesus is for both Jew and non-Jew alike. He promotes Jesus, a light for the gentiles - people like you and me - and the glory of Israel. Jesus went out to the wilderness - the lands beyond Israel; the lands of the gentiles and he will be their deliverer as well as Israel’s.

And so, Jesus’ arrival represents not just a national interest, but an international interest. And not just a momentary interest but an eternal interest. And not merely an earthly interest but a spiritual interest. And not just a chapter in Israel’s interest, but the hinge in the history of the world’s interest. And not just a continuation of the old things, but the inauguration of new things. Jesus is nothing short of the pivot point upon which the existence of everything depends!

Jesus’ arrival is epoch-making in the scheme of God’s redemptive plan for humanity. As Jesus says in verse 15, ‘The time has come…the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ The arrival of Jesus means God’s own kingdom - his heavenly kingdom - has come near to people like you and me.

God intends to make people part of his very own kingdom, forever. To share in all his goodness, forever. And he’s sent Jesus to bring them in - to make them acceptable to him.

So, the message from Mark to us is, ‘come out and meet Jesus. Come out confessing your sins. Come out confessing your waywardness and your turning away from God. Come out to Jesus repenting; re-turning to God. Receive from Jesus the forgiveness of sins. Believe that he went under the waters of God’s judgment in his death for you and that he will bring you up out of them into eternal life and resurrection from the dead. And believe that God is well pleased with him and will never reject anyone who is found united to him by his death!’

This is how Deuteronomy 30 puts it, ‘When you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul…then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you from all the nations…The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.’

God, in Jesus, has made a new covenant with a new people - the people of Jesus - when he will remember their sins no more!

Mark could not have made the opening of his book more dramatic or more groundbreaking if he’d tried, I don’t think!


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