The first thirteen verses of Mark’s opening chapter contain all that he has to say before beginning to describe the period of the Saviour’s public ministry. He thus reaches this period much more rapidly than the other three gospel writers. In verse 14 he dismisses John the Baptist from the scene very briefly in order to achieve his object. In a later chapter he supplies details about John’s arrest and death, 6. 17-29, but in his opening chapter he seems almost impatient to begin to describe the travels and activities of his Lord. This is seen very forcibly by reviewing the way in which the other gospel writers begin their narratives.
Matthew deals with Joseph’s genealogy, the mystery of Mary’s conception, the angelic visitation, the arrival of the wise men, the flight into Egypt, Herod’s destruction of the infants. John the Baptist’s ministry, the baptism of Christ, and the temptation in the wilderness. The Lord’s public ministry does not begin until half-way through the fourth chapter. Luke’s introduction is even more extensive and records Gabriel’s visit to Zacharias, the miracle of Elizabeth’s conception, the birth of John the Baptist, the birth of Christ, the message to the shepherds, the presentation in the temple, the reactions of Simeon and Anna, the incident of the twelve-years-old Jesus in the temple, the ministry of John the Baptist, the Lord’s baptism, the genealogy back to Adam, and the temptation in the wilderness. Again the Lord’s public ministry does not begin until well into the fourth chapter. Whilst John’s introduction is much briefer than those of Matthew and Luke, omitting most of their material entirely, he begins with his wonderful unfolding of the deity of Christ, the meaning of the incarnation, a unique account of the content and significance of John the Baptist’s ministry, and an extended description of the Lord’s call of His first few disciples. The public ministry begins in chapter 2 at Cana’s wedding.
How different, therefore, is Mark’s brief opening section. He omits entirely the genealogies, the angelic visitations, the ancestry and birth of John the Baptist, the details of the Lord’s conception and birth, the visits of the shepherds and wise men, the words of Simeon and Anna, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, and the details of the temptations. He is content simply to refer to the prophecies about John, then to summarize John’s ministry, and the baptism and temptation of the Lord. He then embarks upon the subject matter which was evidently closest to his heart It has often been pointed out that Mark’s Gospel emphasizes the servant-character of the Lord Jesus, and that the omission of details about His credentials and ancestry is consistent with this emphasis.
There is however a wealth of vital doctrinal content in Mark’s brief opening section. His words may be few, but they are also very compact. This series of three studies aims to explore and unfold some of the treasures contained there.
Mark begins his account of “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” by introducing John the Baptist. He does this by quoting two prophetic scriptures from the Old Testament. Thus his opening words in verse 1, “the beginning of the gospel”, implying the unfolding of previously unrecorded events, are followed in verse 2 by “as it is written in the prophets”, implying that his book has its origins in God’s earlier revelations made in previous centuries. So what is a beginning in verse 1 is seen to be a continuation in verse 2.
Two of the prophets are cited, first Malachi, the most recent writer, and then Isaiah, a much earlier one. The order in which the extracts are presented is appropriate, because Malachi’s words (quoted in verse 2) predict the manner of their accomplishment. Malachi’s original words are modified by Mark. The prophet had written, “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me”, Mai. 3.1. Mark, guided we must remember by the same Holy Spirit who had guided Malachi, writes, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee”. The phrases “thy face” and “thy way” imply that the Father was speaking to the’ Son. Malachi’s words, therefore, record simply the divine resolve to send a messenger to prepare the way for a divine visitation. Mark’s words present that resolve as a promise made by the Father to the Son. And how these words magnify the office of John the Baptist. He fulfilled the words of the Father to the Son. He was in a sense the Father’s gift to the Son, the Father’s messenger preparing the way for the Son’s advent. How would John fulfil this task? Isaiah’s words supply the answer, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness. Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. We should notice that this extract explains Mark’s modified reference “thy way” from Malachi, and confirms the identity of Jesus Christ as the Lord, the Jehovah of the Old Testament. The extract is taken from that wonderful chapter 40 of Isaiah, containing a lengthy prophetic passage full of comfort and hope for God’s ancient people: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” - then follows Mark’s passage - “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”, Isa 40. 1-3. Again we notice that Mark modifies the words to read “make his paths straight”.
How, then, did John serve the Lord? With his voice. How did he use it? By “crying”. Where did he work? “In the wilderness”. What was his message? “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. Let us consider these things. First of all we should remember that so far as John was concerned he not merely used his voice, he was content to describe himself as “a voice”. His namesake who wrote the fourth Gospel describes the Baptist’s encounter with a deputation of priests and Levites from Jerusalem. The investigating Jews first tried to persuade John to declare his identity. Repeated failure to elicit a satisfactory answer caused them finally to ask, “What sayest thou of thyself?”, to which he replied, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah”, John 1. 22, 23. Thus the same chapter which presents Jesus as the Word, presents John as the voice, the unseen servant of the Word. Voices tell out words and John told out Jesus.
This is very important, because it reveals that he was no casual preacher. Urgency and earnestness marked his preaching. He was not a composer of sermons He did not give interesting talks. He cried. He yearned to reach hearts and consciences He was God’s messenger, and he knew it. Great issues hung upon the people’s response to his call. He was a man sent from God (says the fourth Gospel), and he had dwelt for years in the deserts until the time of his showing to Israel (says the third Gospel). The divine message burned within him and he could not but tell it out with power and conviction.
Where did he cry? “In the wilderness”. The desert and the river were his sphere of service. People had to leave their homes and comforts, their towns and cities, their shops and workplaces, to get within the sound of John’s voice. Man-made surroundings were out of place for his message. The people had to get away from the din of social chatter and the clamour of busy streets. They had to go into the wilderness in order to give undivided attention to John’s preaching. From the divine standpoint, of course, the entire world is a wilderness, being barren of the things which would satisfy the heart of God. People who are submerged in the world’s atmosphere and pre occupied with its interests are likely to be deaf to the voice of God. They need to withdraw from the pressure and influence of man’s ungodly society if they are to feel the impact of the call of God today.
The river was also important. Centuries earlier the tribes of Israel had crossed the Jordan to begin life in the promised land. Now John was calling them back to the river to make a new beginning. The Jordan speaks eloquently of death. The Hebrew name for it signifies the Descender. At its sources it is high above sea level, but it descends until it enters the Dead Sea, some 1300 feet below sea level. Joshua in the Old Testament and the Baptist in the New Testament both had strong connections with the river. Joshua had led the tribes of Israel through a passage which God made across the river. But it was for a very different purpose that John called the people back to the river. Whereas Joshua had led the Israelites straight across to the western shore, John led the people of his day into the river and plunged them beneath its waters. Joshua lead Israel collectively across the river; John led into the river only those individuals who responded to his call.
For Joshua the river was a barrier to the conquest of the promised land. After the crossing, he led Israel’s armies to conflict up and down the land. He was seeking to establish God’s kingdom through Israel. But for John the river was the constant sphere of his ministry. He did not conduct a once-for-all crossing, but a day-by-day baptism of all who answered his call. In a sense Joshua’s crossing had failed to fulfil its promise. Later generations, through sin and backsliding, lost the ground which he and his armies had won. By the time John appeared. Israel’s ten-tribe kingdom and Judah’s two-tribe kingdom were in ruins. But God’s kingdom was at hand again, though in a very different form. Citizenship would not be acquired by natural descent. Every potential citizen had to respond to John’s call to repentance, and must submit to being plunged into Jordan’s waters. Marching across the river bed would not do now; the waters of death were not now held back at a distance. Baptism in the river by individuals was demanded, and the candidates must be surrounded and engulfed by the waters before emerging again. Each individual who walked into the river with John the Baptist was publicly admitting his guilt and expressing repentance, and in effect he was saying to his fellow-men: “My guilt deserves death and by this symbolic plunge. I am accepting, and submitting to the sentence of death here and now; and I am resolving to live henceforth as a devoted subject of the coming King”.
This truth had in a measure been symbolized at Joshua’s crossing of the river. Twelve stones from the eastern shore had been planted in the river bed before the ark was carried out by the priests. And twelve stones were taken from the river bed and placed somewhere on the western shore. It was as though these stones depicted God s intention for His people. They had passed into a sphere of death, and were meant to leave behind their former idolatrous and rebellious ways They had emerged out of that sphere and were meant to live as new men for the glory of God. But the symbol did not reach the hearts of the people, and the reality never materialized. John’s baptism was also symbolic, but in a sense it was more effective in that it was more personal. It was never administered at random. Other Gospels record how boldly and forthrightly John challenged his hearers about the need for true repentance and for a change of heart and conduct. This rugged man of God led thousands into and out of the river, but it was never a formality for him. In distinguishing his baptism from Christian baptism, we ought to recognize that it taught lessons similar to the later ordinance. John’s baptism set forth each candidate’s death, burial and resurrection in identification with the coming King, who would subsequently baptize him in the Holy Spirit Christian baptism sets forth each candidate’s death, burial and resurrection with Christ, already accomplished at Calvary, and made effective by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling from the moment of conversion. Perhaps one vital difference between the two ordinances is this, that it was possible for John’s candidates never to progress to a full commitment to the coming Christ and to baptism in the Holy Spirit; whereas Christian baptism, properly administered, sets forth a transaction already accomplished and a relationship already established.
What was John’s message? Mark’s quotation from Isaiah describes it thus, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. Now John did not preach those actual words, yet they evidently sum up what he did preach What do we know of his actual words? Mark tells us two things:
(i) “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”, v. 4. So he preached that sins could be forgiven, provided that people would repent. And he preached that repentant people must show the sincerity of their repentance by submitting to a public, personal immersion in the river. And in thus preaching, he was in effect telling people to prepare the way of the Lord and to make His paths straight. The Lord was on His way towards the people He was about to appear among them and before them. They could prepare to receive Him by removing obstructions from His paths, and so making those paths straight The greatest obstruction was their sins, which were blighting their lives and would blind them to the identity of the coming One Those obstructing sins would have to be cleared if the Lord was to gain unhindered access among them and to claim the thrones of their hearts and lives. Removal was possible by remission. Forgiveness was available to the repentant, and God’s for giveness puts men’s sins out of sight and consigns them to permanent oblivion. God remembers them no more.
(ii) He preached, saying. After me comes He who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie, v.7. This message also fulfils the theme mentioned in Isaiah’s prophecy, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. John here magnifies the person of Christ, for he longs to impress his hearers with the surpassing glory of the coming One. He longs to do justice to Him and to convince the people of His absolute supremacy “Mightier than I”, says John. Now John was a mighty man And he was the centre of popular attention as he was preaching by the river. He was drawing vast numbers of people to his ministry. We know from other gospel passages that people were speculating about the possibility that John himself was the promised Messiah. But he repeatedly refuted such notions. Mighty as he was in his powerful, Spirit-filled denunciations of sin and his fearless insistence upon thorough-going repentance, bold as he was in rebuking the sins even of religious leaders and of king Herod himself; still he emphatically pointed men away from himself to his coming Lord.
Now let us notice carefully the unreserved self-abasement and consuming humility of John; he was not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. The thong, or latchet, means a strap, whether for binding prisoners (Acts 22. 25. “And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman and uncondemned?”) or for fastening sandals. “Among the Orientals everything connected with the feet and shoes is defiled and debasing, and the stooping to unfasten the dusty latchet is the most insignificant in such service” [Hastings Bible Dictionary quoted by W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). We never read that anyone ever performed this service for the Lord, and indeed He never sought any menial service from anyone, declaring that He “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many”. Before the last supper began He washed His disciples’ feet, presumably in the absence of a volunteer among them to do this lowly task. He moved so naturally and quietly as a Man among men, that many people treated Him as an equal, even if they were impressed by His miracles or His teachings He was content to accept the place men gave Him. But John the Baptist had so clear an understanding of the total supremacy of Christ that he held Him in the utmost reverence and awe. Weigh his words carefully. He does not say that all he feels adequate for is to unfasten the thong of the Lord’s sandals. He rather declares himself unworthy and inadequate for that task. He feels unfitted for it, unequal to it, unworthy of it.
Was he right about this, reader? Or was he overstating his case and expressing humility in rather exaggerated terms? Was it true that he was unworthy for this slave’s function? Surely this was taking things a bit too far, we might protest. Humility is right and proper, but it can be overdone. Even accepting John’s evident sincerity, was he correct in his conviction? For if he was, then it follows that what was true of him is certainly true for us. The Lord Jesus said later of John, “Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist”, Matt. 11. 11. So if John was unworthy to render menial service to his Lord, so are we. And we can say categorically that he was right in his words. Our evidence for this is in the words which Gabriel had spoken to Zacharias before John was born, “he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb”, Luke 1.15. Those are amazing words, perhaps spoken of no other man who has ever lived. And it goes without saying that a man who is filled with the Spirit of truth always tells the truth. He does not exaggerate, much less feign an excess of humility. We must therefore cultivate the same outlook. We are exhorted in Ephesians 5 18 to be “filled with the Spirit”, and one result of this will be that we shall feel exactly as John felt towards the Lord
John’s humility did not deter him from serving the Lord. His constant preaching and baptizing formed his service to Christ His repeated calls to his fellow-countrymen to adjust their lives and mend their ways in preparation for receiving the coming One - all this was service to Christ, into which John poured all his zeal and God-given energies. But the thought of functioning as Christ’s personal slave and attendant, if only to unfasten the thong of His sandals, was too much for him. He held his Master in such awe and esteem that he felt unworthy to undertake even the lowliest personal service. Such is the outlook of the Spirit-filled man. This overwhelming sense of the supremacy of Christ gave character to his life-long ministry. His scorching denunciations of sin, his ruthless condemnation of hypocrisy, his fearless rebukes of even Herod’s wickedness, were all prompted and coloured by his exalted view of Christ. In all he did and said he laboured for the glory of his Lord.