“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)
Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy. He wants to present the lineage of Jesus Christ and His birthright, as a Son of David, to rule over Israel. Luke begins his Gospel with a note of introduction explaining both his purpose and approach. And John opens his Gospel with a “Beginning” that looks back to time immemorial, before the Lord had created a single thing. But Mark begins his record with a prophecy and a prophet.
For Mark, the real beginning of the Gospel centers around an adult John the Baptist baptizing an adult Jesus. Mark, the “evangelist of action”, spends no time developing the background of Jesus’ or John the Baptist’s births, but jumps right in with the Scriptural prophecies concerning the Baptist. Quoting from both Malachi and Isaiah in verses 2 and 3 (cf. Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3), Mark gives one of the few references to the Old Testament in his entire book. As do the other Gospel writers, Mark gives these references in order to positively identify John as the prophesied messenger and “voice” who would serve as the forerunner of Jesus’ coming.
John The Baptist, Last Of The Prophets
“Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)
Here on the pages of the New Testament appears the last of the Old Testament prophets. John the Baptist was truly an extraordinary man who occupied a unique position in the purposes of God. His ministry serving as a transition point between the Old and New Testaments, John was called to prepare the way for the Lord Jesus to begin His own ministry. For not only is the ministry of John the “beginning of the Gospel”, so are the ministries of all the prophets of the Old Testament whose entire prophetic works ultimately pointed toward the coming Christ. John’s ministry was the culmination of every prophet of God who had served before him.
John Served In The Office Of Elijah
“It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)
“[The disciples] asked [Jesus], saying, “Why is it that the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” And He said to them, “Elijah does first come and restore all things. And yet how is it written of the Son of Man that He will suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has indeed come, and they did to him whatever they wished, just as it is written of him.” (Mark 9:11-13)
John the Baptist came in the spirit and strength of Elijah. He actually served in the office of Elijah with a very similar type of ministry. In fact, the people of Judea were doubtlessly reminded of Elijah himself by John’s clothing (cf. 2 Kings 1:8) and that, along with his message, prompted them to plainly ask him if he was Elijah come in the flesh (John 1:21). But the Baptist denied that he was actually Elijah although our Lord confirms that he represented him.
“Elijah” himself is often understood Scripturally to be representative of all the prophets; a sort of synecdoche used interchangeably with the expression “the prophets.” Thus the image of all of the prophets of the Old Testament witnessing to the identity of Jesus Christ through the Baptism of John is reinforced by John’s close association with the person of Elijah.
In The Wilderness
It is also significant that the location of John’s ministry was in “the Wilderness.” The Wilderness is the place in the history of Israel of wandering and rebellion against God. Israel, as a people and nation, had wandered far from the Lord and this is symbolized by the place where they are to go and meet with God’s last prophet before the coming Messiah. Yet the Wilderness is also a place of preparation where God tests, prepares, and meets with His people. It was to the Wilderness of Midian that Moses fled after killing the Egyptian taskmaster (Exodus 2:15) and it was in this wilderness that God appeared to him in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-2). How appropriate it is that God would choose a remote, wilderness place for people to come and be baptized in preparation for the coming Christ.
The Message Of John
Finally, we consider the content of John’s message and the result of the baptism he was performing. First of all, the heart of John’s message was not an idea or teaching, but a Person. His primary purpose was to point others toward Jesus Christ. His ministry was a preparatory one, paving the way for the Lord’s coming.
“And he was preaching, and saying, “After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7-8)
“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)
It should be understood that Mark is in no way suggesting that John’s baptism resulted in the forgiveness of sins; only faith in Jesus Christ can do that. But the repentance from sin and undergoing John’s water baptism was the proper response to his message. Doing this would prepare a person for the coming work of the Lord Jesus and would put them in a position to receive Christ. The Greek preposition translated in most of our English versions as “for” in Mark 1:4 is probably better rendered as unto, with reference to, or leading to.
“Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19:4-5)
This incident in the Book of Acts demonstrates the purposes of John the Baptist’s ministry. These twelve men whom Paul encountered in Ephesus had apparently been disciples of John the Baptist but had never come to faith in Jesus. At what point they had left John and headed for Asia Minor is uncertain, but they had evidently missed much, if not all, of the Lord’s ministry in Judea. Consequently, they had repented of their sins, received John’s baptism, but had not yet received Christ for Salvation.
John’s baptism with water was performed in order to outwardly demonstrate the inward repentance the person had made. Yet Christ’s baptism with the Holy Spirit comes upon those who repent and trust in Him for Salvation.
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,
[This post was originally published June 25, 2014]
[If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ or you are not certain where you are headed when this life ends, I invite you to read the article “Am I Going To Heaven?“]