The Voice Crying in the Wilderness

February 14, 2021 / No. 4076

We return again today to the Gospel of Mark. We looked last week at the first verse of the first chapter, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Today we continue by looking at verses 2-8. I will begin by reading those:

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; and preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.

As we get into this gospel, we see immediately that the starting point is different from the other gospel accounts. There is no mention of Jesus’ birth or childhood. Mark jumps right into the adult life of Jesus and the beginning of His public ministry. That is because Mark’s purpose is to show us that Jesus is the Servant-King, the One who came (according to chapter 10:45), not to be served, “but to [serve], and to give his life a ransom for many.” So Mark begins the public ministry of Jesus with the announcement of Him from the mouth of John the Baptist.

John comes to announce and proclaim the gospel. He does that, not by presenting a program for the people to follow or a philosophy or ideas for the people to adopt, but by pointing his listeners to Jesus Christ. As we saw in verse 1, “The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is the good news of what God had done for sinners in Jesus Christ, His Son.

And that is the most important thing for us to see about John the Baptist—that he comes, not with a ministry about himself, but a ministry concerning Jesus Christ. If we asked John: “Who are you?” he would say, “I’m nobody.” They came and asked him: “Are you the Christ, are you Elijah, are you that great prophet?” And he said (in the gospel according to John), “I am just a voice.” Here in verse 7 he says, there is one that comes “mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.” This reflects the words of the gospel of John, in 3:30, where he says of Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

So Mark here describes John in verses 2 and 3 as a herald, a messenger, a voice, one who prepares the people and calls the people to see the King who is coming. Every king has a herald, one who announces his arrival. Recently I watched a Press conference at the White House, and before the President emerged to his podium, there was an announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States of America.” Then the Press corps stands and there is music: “Hail to the Chief,” and the President emerges to his podium with the seal of the United States embossed upon it. So there is a messenger, a forerunner, a voice: “The king is coming. Be prepared.” That is the point here. John’s message is not a message about John himself but a message that points to Jesus Christ.

In verses 2 and 3, there are two Old Testament prophecies that Mark quotes and strings together. He does that because both of these refer to the same person, to John the Baptist. In verse 2, he says: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.” This is a quote from Malachi 3:1. What we should notice especially is that, in this quotation, Mark changes the pronouns. The difference in the pronouns is this, that in Malachi, Jehovah speaks of Himself: “I will send my messenger before me, and he shall prepare the way before me,” whereas here, in Mark, Jehovah speaks to the Son: “I will send my messenger before thy face, and he shall prepare thy way before thee.” Now, Mark is not misquoting, but there is a divine interpretation here in the New Testament of the Old Testament prophecy. And it points to the fact that the One who comes, Jesus Christ, is Himself divine. “I will send my messenger before my face.” This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The second prophecy quoted here is from the book of Isaiah, chapter 40:3. Here, in Mark, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” In the context in Isaiah, this is a message of comfort to God’s people,who are waiting for the servant of Jehovah to come: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” We can imagine that there were those in the days of John the Baptist who were waiting. Perhaps they knew of Zacharias’ child born some three decades earlier. Perhaps they heard of the birth in Bethlehem and the shepherds’ vision. But what had happened to all this? Zacharias’ son is alone in the wilderness. The child born in Bethlehem is now in Nazareth, an unknown carpenter’s boy. And now the voice comes, the voice in the wilderness: “The King is coming. Prepare the way.”

Now we have a description of John here that matches his task. He is described here in verse 6 both in terms of his dress and his diet. And both of them are telling us something. Verse 6: “John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey.” He wore camel’s hair, a girdle of skin. He was not wearing this just for fun or because he liked it. But there was a message in his clothing. His rough clothing here identifies him as a prophet. This was the garb, the dress, of the prophets in the Old Testament. Zechariah 13:4, 5 describes prophets who do not want to be known as prophets removing their rough clothing. And this particular outfit of rough clothing that John wears identifies him with the Old Testament prophet Elijah. You see that in the description of Elijah in the beginning of II Kings. He was dressed the same way. And in the very last verses of the Old Testament, there is a prophecy of Elijah who would come before the great and terrible day of the Lord. Mark, in describing the dress of John the Baptist here, is really saying what Jesus would later say, “Elijah has come. Elijah has come to announce the coming of the Messiah.” So this is his dress.

And then there is also his diet: locusts and wild honey. Why does he eat these? Well, again, it is not because this is what he prefers. This is not his preferred food, but it speaks of where he lives in the wilderness. This is the food that is available for him. And this really adds another dimension to his description. John did baptize and preach in the wilderness, we read in verse 4. Why does he preach in the wilderness? In the Bible, the wilderness is a place of seclusion and separation and judgment. Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness for her sin. And on the great Day of Atonement, the goat who had the sins of the people spoken on him was led into the wilderness. By setting up his pulpit in the wilderness and by dressing as he did, John rebukes the established religion and the elitism of the Jewish leaders of his day and calls the people to spiritual change and separation from the empty religion of the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

And that brings us to his message. What was his message? Mark does not give us the kind of detail of John’s preaching that we find in the other gospel accounts, but he summarizes the message of John here as two things. First, in verse 4, a message of baptism, and then in verses 7 and 8, a message concerning Jesus Christ.

In verse 4: He preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” There is something very radical about this, and that is especially the message of baptism. He preached baptism.

Baptism is a sign or symbol in the Scriptures that teaches us our need for the forgiveness and the washing of sins. When it says here that John preached baptism, it means that he demanded that those who heard his message respond to it by being baptized. That, especially, was the radical element of John’s message. He was John the Baptist, John the Baptizer. It is not that baptism, as a ritual, was altogether a new thing. If you go to the Old Testament, you will see that there are many ceremonial washings for unclean things, even for unclean people. But by this time baptism was used primarily as a symbol for the Gentile converts who came into Judaism. In the mind, it symbolized that Gentiles (the goyim) were defiled and unclean, whereas being a Jew and having Abraham for your father meant that you did not need to be washed. We see that when the Jewish leaders come to John and they say to John in Matthew 3:9 and Luke 3:8, “We have Abraham for our father. Why are you baptizing? We have Abraham for our father.” And John is saying to the Jews who come to him at the Jordan River that, regardless of whether they have Abraham for their father, they need to be baptized, they need repentance, they need the washing of their sins, they are unclean.

That was the distinct message of John, and it was preached with such clarity and such authority and such urgency that when the people came to John, they knew that his preaching was different from what they had been hearing from the Jewish leaders. And because of this, thousands of them, perhaps tens of thousands of them, came to him. In verse 5 it says, there went out to him all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and they were all baptized of him in the Jordan River. It does not mean that every last one of them came, but that they compelled one another. They said, “Have you heard this man? Have you seen his dress? Have you heard his preaching?” And we can imagine thousands coming, perhaps tens of thousands coming to the Jordan River to listen as John pointed out their sins, as he called out the sins of their leaders, as he pointed to the publicans and the soldiers and the false religious leaders and he called them by name and he called them to flee the wrath to come.

That, especially, is the radical part of John’s message here in verse 4: He preached the “baptism of repentance.” Repentance is both a change of mind and heart and a change of conduct or life. True repentance is the result of a transformed nature, which is changed and made new by the work of the Holy Spirit. And true repentance brings forth, as John calls it elsewhere, the fruit of repentance—a turning from sin and a turning to God. And John is saying that only in the way of repentance is there forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The baptism here is a symbol of that forgiveness that comes in the way of their repentance.

And if we think about John’s message of sin and judgment, what a blessing this message was, what a gracious message this was for the people in John’s audience. They had been taught to be secure in their religious practice and in their religious lineage of the house of Abraham, and here John comes with a message of comfort and he comes declaring remission. He preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

Today there are many who call themselves preachers, but there is no message of sin, no call of repentance, no comfort, no promise of forgiveness. And Christianity is emptied of the good news of the gospel. John, in contrast, preaches good news in the coming of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. And in this way John prepares the way for the coming of Jesus Christ. Only in the way of repentance, only in recognition of sins, is there forgiveness that comes through Jesus Christ.

So John preached first the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

The second element of John’s message we find in verses 7 and 8, and it is really this: The gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ. John magnified Jesus Christ. He preached saying, “There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” John is diverting attention away from himself here. He is saying, “Yes, I’m first, first on the scene, but I’m not the Christ.” What John emphasizes here is the qualitative difference between himself and the One who will follow after him—Jesus Christ. John is finite, but the One who comes after him is infinite. John is temporal, but the One who comes after him is eternal. So John says in verse 8: “I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” What he is really saying is, “All I can really do is wash you on the outside. But the One who comes after me, he can cleanse you from the inside.” And the washing of the Holy Spirit is the work of regeneration in salvation. In saying this, John indicates that the Messiah who will come after him is no mere man. Who can command the Spirit of God, and who can forgive sins, but God? What good news this is to those who came to hear John preach. They waited, not just for a Messiah, but they waited for the day when God would come for the deliverance of Israel and for their deliverance from sin, and the day when God would come and pour out His Spirit upon all flesh. And this is the good news that John announces.

Let us see that there is a proper response to the preaching and the methods of John. It is the humble response of repentance that God works in the hearts of His elect people. We see that here in the passage, first of all in John’s own response to the message that he brings. In verse 7 he says, “I am not worthy even to stoop down and undo the latchet of Jesus’ shoes or sandals.” The feet were the dirtiest and the most despised part of the human body. And to stoop down and unloose the shoe latchet was the task of the lowest servant. And John is saying, “I am not even worthy to be the lowest servant of Jesus.” He points to a great difference between himself and the Savior. That is humility. There is no hypocrisy in what John declares here. He speaks of his own knowledge, his own sinfulness, and his own need also of repentance and remission of sins.

But we see this humble response secondly in this passage in the way that the multitudes who came to hear John responded to the message that he brought. In verse 5, they “were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.” This does not mean that every last one of them was baptized or confessed their sins. The other Gospels make that plain. But here is the beginning in Mark of the great multitudes that will follow Jesus, understanding their sin and understanding Him as Savior. And what is said of them here is marvelous. They came confessing their sin. That is the Spirit-worked response of repentance and faith to the gospel. That is their turning from their sin to God. And do you not see in that that God, through John’s message, is preparing the hearts of God’s people for the coming of the Savior, for the ministry of repentance for the cross? Here is the only way for them to understand who Jesus is and why He will, in the end, go to the cross. Sin, sin, necessitates the death of the Savior on the cross. So, again, the key verse in this gospel account, Mark 10:45: “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” One cannot understand the ransom apart from knowing his own sin.

And so, John preached, and so we preach, the gospel of Jesus Christ as the ransom for sinners. This gospel demands the same response from us who hear it today. Jesus has now come, and the gospel we hear is essentially the same—the gospel of baptism for the remission of sins. Baptism is the symbol that teaches us three things: that we need forgiveness and that we must repent and believe in Jesus Christ; that there is forgiveness to all who are in Christ and are washed by His Spirit and blood; and then, third, that there is a call to holiness and separation from sin. That is the message of the gospel that comes to us today—that we confess our sins; that we come to Jesus for washing and remission; and that we lead a new and holy life.

So, as we go forward in this book, we are not interested just in information. John does not present a program to follow, a philosophy to adopt, but a person to believe in. And the person is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Let us pray, as we go forward, that God, by His Spirit, will keep us looking toward Christ and toward the cross, because that is what the gospel, the good news, is all about for unworthy sinners.

Let us pray.

Father, we pray that by the Spirit we will be awakened to see our sin and the washing of remission and repentance, through Jesus Christ. Help us, in understanding our sin, to seek the ransom that Christ paid for us and to believe, looking away from our unworthiness to His worthiness in our place. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.