As we read the opening paragraph – or most of it, for it extends to v. 13 – be aware that it serves as a prologue to the Gospel. One of the indications of this is the use of certain important terms that figure prominently here, but not in the remainder of the book. For example, the prologue of the Gospel of John describes Jesus as “the Word” – “In the beginning was the Word;” “the Word became flesh” – but that idea does not appear anywhere else in the Gospel of John. It seems that John is opening his Gospel with his theological reflection on the meaning of the narrative that he has written. Well, in a similar way, Mark is giving us a theological interpretation of the history he is about to relate. And, in the same way as in John 1, there are terms that feature prominently in this opening prologue but not in the rest of Mark’s Gospel.
The first is the word for “desert” or “wilderness” [έρημος]. You find it in the citation from Isaiah with which Mark begins, but then again in v. 4 and again in vv. 12 and 13. At the outset everything happens in the wilderness. In the narrative that follows, everything happens in the context of normal life, with the Lord surrounded by people. The wilderness is the setting of the prologue, but definitely not of the Gospel as a whole. In fact, after 1:13 the noun “wilderness” or “desert” does not appear again in the entire Gospel. The wilderness, of course, is where the Lord showed himself to Israel after the Exodus. The wilderness is where the Lord met and cared for his people. It is where the Lord prepared the way for his people. It was a time of new beginning. [France, 57]. In the ministry of Jesus, in other words, we have a new exodus; a new wilderness; the history of Israel’s redemption is being repeated on a still higher plane.
The second word is “spirit” [πνεūμα]. It occurs three times in the 13 verses of the prologue and only three times in the rest of the Gospel and never again in reference to the Holy Spirit’s role in the life and ministry of Jesus. The prophets often spoke of the day when Yahweh would pour out his Spirit upon the world. That John the Baptist should say in v. 8 that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit is virtually to tell us that Jesus is none other than Yahweh himself. “In the OT the bestowal of the Spirit belongs exclusively to God.” [Edwards, 33] And the prophets also spoke of the Messiah being a person on whom the Spirit would rest and the Servant of the Lord as being one in whom the Lord has put his Spirit. So when we read in v. 10 of the Spirit descending upon Jesus at his baptism and of the Spirit directing him into the desert in v. 12 Mark is, as it were, tying up a lot of loose ends in biblical prophecy. This Jesus is the one we have been waiting for and he brings with him a new beginning in the salvation of God. He will pour out the Spirit of God and bring salvation to the world.
This explains the significance of John the Baptist and his ministry as the opening of Mark. The opening OT citation, a tapestry of three OT texts – Malachi 3:1 (adjusted with wording from Exodus 23:20) and Isaiah 40:3 identifies John as the herald who would prepare the way of the Lord – “Lord” in its OT context could only mean Yahweh; another of the very many implicit and explicit identifications of Jesus with Yahweh or Jehovah that are found in the NT. That is, the prophecy of a herald’s appearance before the coming of the Lord, to prepare the way for him is being fulfilled in John’s ministry, and the emphasis, therefore, falls on the one who comes after him, not on John himself. But remember: the texts that Mark uses from the OT, his reference to the desert and to the Holy Spirit, all suggest that the one to come, the one whose coming the herald will announce, will be none other than the Lord, Yahweh himself. But, through verse 8, Mark’s readers, or better, his hearers, have not yet heard the identity of this one whose coming John announced. This then is the striking, the stunning development of verse 9: the one who has come, the one greater than John, the Lord, Yahweh, whose coming is prophesied in the texts Mark has cited, is none other than the man Jesus. The whole elaborate Christian doctrine of the incarnation of God, of Jesus as both God and man, is all indicated here in Mark’s prologue, just as it is so magnificently in the prologue of the Gospel of John. John is the forerunner of the Lord and Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord himself.
Given the fact that most, if not all Jews, [France, 62] believed that prophecy had ceased with Malachi, to call John a prophet, as Mark does here, was another powerful indication that a new day was dawning and a new chapter opening in the story of God’s salvation. This is the significance of John’s distinctive dress. It is the dress of a prophet, especially the dress of Elijah who was the representative prophet of Israel. [2 Kings 1:8] That is another reason we find John in the wilderness near the Jordan. That area, remember, is associated with the ministry of Elijah. It was near the Jordan from which he was taken up to heaven, if you remember from the early chapters of II Kings. That is another reason why in Malachi 4:5, the forerunner of the Messiah, is said to be Elijah. Elijah is the representative prophet, he stands for all the prophets, he is all biblical prophecy compressed into a single life. On the basis of that text in Malachi there was a widespread belief in the Judaism of that time that Elijah himself would return as a forerunner of the coming of the kingdom of God in the final day. Now we know that the one to come as a herald would be a new Elijah, a prophet like Elijah, a man who ministers in the spirit and power of Elijah, not Elijah himself. And the same idea of John as the forerunner of the King of Kings is present in the comparison between John’s baptism and that of Jesus: the former is only preparatory; the latter is the real thing; the former is an outward washing, the latter a transformation of heart that produces a revolution in one’s life.
Read Mark 1:1-8
The first thing the Bible does, here in the Gospel of Mark and everywhere else, is to make a man or a woman take a serious view of life. C.S. Lewis once wrote that he liked to take his Christianity the same way he took his whiskey – straight. Well that is what you get in the Gospel of Mark. You get it straight. You get it right between the eyes, right at the beginning.
What we get is a momentous development in the history of the world, a breaking-in of God into the life of man, an appearance of the Lord God in the world in the life of a single, human man, Jesus of Nazareth, and for what purpose: to bring, to provide, to bring the forgiveness of sins. This is the presupposition of everything here. This is the problem that God’s coming into the world is designed to solve. This is the question for which Jesus is the one and only answer: what is to be done with my sins? How am I to be rid of them? How may I escape God’s righteous judgment of my sinful life? How may I find forgiveness?
“John came baptizing” we read in v. 4. And whatever else we may say about this baptism of John’s, it was plainly a symbol of cleansing from sin. Water is the universal agent of cleansing. No people anywhere in this world get clean without water. There were washings in the OT and every one of them was a cleansing. There were ritual washings in the Judaism of that day – not quite like John’s but washings nonetheless – and they too represented the removal of impurity. The very first thing we hear being done in this gospel is men receiving ceremonial baths. Why? It is because they knew themselves dirty; not physically, but spiritually.
Now some ritual washings of the OT and first century Judaism removed only ceremonial impurity. There was no moral stain, no sin involved. You had a discharge, or you touched something impure, or you birthed a child, or some such thing. You couldn’t avoid that kind of impurity and there was nothing morally sinful about it. But John’s baptism didn’t concern that kind of merely ceremonial impurity. His baptism had to do with our sin, our moral stain, our moral failure, our failure to be and to do what God requires of human beings.
We know this because John’s baptism is described as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Indeed, did you notice in v. 4 that John preached or proclaimed a baptism of repentance? Repentance was John’s message reduced to a word. [Edwards, 31] And for a prophet to preach or proclaim repentance as his message means that this is the very thing that God is summoning men to do. When Jesus, in vv. 14-15 proclaims the same message when he begins his ministry, it is clear that repentance and faith, for faith is always a part of true repentance, are the means by which sinful human beings lay hold of the new thing that God is doing, by which they enter the kingdom of God that has come into the world, and by which they embrace the good news. Redemption is Jesus’ work, we have nothing to do with that, we cannot increase it or decrease it; repentance is our part, it is what we are summoned to do.
Repentance in the Bible, you know, means a turning away from a way of life that is displeasing to God and embracing for us his will for our living. It presupposes that our way of life needs to change, that we are bad, and need to be good. And forgiveness of sins suggests the same things. We need to be forgiven because we have offended God by what we have thought and said and done and by what we have failed to say and think and do. In the Old Testament, repentance – an idea that occurs very often – means returning to the Lord with one’s whole being and in everything, in every part of one’s life taking the Lord absolutely seriously. [Cranfield, 45]
There was no doubt whatsoever about the burden of John’s ministry. The people who fell under its spell, the people who were convinced by what John preached, the people who submitted to his baptism all did the same thing: they confessed their sins. They admitted that they were at fault, that they were sinners against God and man and that they needed to be forgiven. They learned from John that this honesty about themselves was a prerequisite of their sharing in the salvation that was about to come into the world and turning away from sin and turning to God was precisely what God expected of them and what his salvation required of them. The good news was for the penitent and for them only.
From the very beginning, from its outset, Christianity was the religion of the broken heart just as Israel’s true faith, the faith of Abraham and Moses, had always depended upon the broken and contrite heart in the ancient epoch. The story of Jesus Christ and the salvation that he brought to mankind which is going to be the story of this gospel does not begin in comfort or what the French call sangfroid, that is self-confidence and imperturbility. On the contrary, the gospel begins in dismay, in disgust with oneself, in the recognition that one is desperately needy and that he needs God to forgive him. He needs God to forgive a great deal! John the Baptist was the promised forerunner of the Messiah. He spoke of the one who would come after him, the thong of whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. But what specifically did John do as the forerunner of the Messiah? He convinced his hearers that they were sinners, that they needed to confess their sins and repent of them. He prepared the Messiah’s way by bringing people to the conviction of their sin and leading them to repentance.
And as the story will unfold the necessity of this as the first step will become more and more clear. The gospel of Mark is going to be an account of those who received Jesus Christ and those who rejected him. Those who refused Jesus were always invariably the self-righteousness. They did not believe that they had sins to confess, or, if they did, they did not believe that God’s forgiving them would be of any great moment. They certainly never imagined that getting rid of their sins would require the single most stupendous event in the history of the world: the incarnation of God the Son and his terrible death on the cross. But those who believed in Jesus and became his followers were precisely those whose hearts were broken by their own moral failure and by their great moral need. As Jesus himself would later say it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick and that he had not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. He meant, of course, not that there were people so healthy they did not need a doctor or people so righteous that they did not need to repent. He meant rather that there were many people who thought themselves healthy and thought themselves righteous and in the nature of the case, he and his salvation would be of no interest to them. Christ assumed that men are bad. If you don’t share that conviction, and in particular if you don’t share it about yourself, you can’t get started with Jesus Christ or the gospel. He was the first to admit that and to explain that. And the fact is powerfully stated as a presupposition as an assumption at the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. You come to Jesus on your knees, not standing on your feet. You come aware that you are a sinner and that you need forgiveness or you don’t come at all. What brings men to Christ is a sense of defeat and a sense of very great need.
What a strange and colorful man John was. His appearance would have seemed as strange to his contemporaries as it sounds to us today. He lived apart; in the wilderness. But what a preacher! And what a message! It was a message; these were sermons that people were not hearing from their rabbis. It was a message that one would think would not be popular at all. It was a message about sin and about their sinfulness. These were Jews after all who came to hear John. They were the people of God, the children of Abraham. But John was saying that their vaunted status was not enough, their belonging to the line of Abraham, Moses, and David was not enough. No even they had to confess their sins, repent and turn to God, making that repentance, that turning clear by submitting to John’s baptism. The great existential question posed by Mark’s prologue and by John’s preparation of the way for Jesus is this: do you think, are you convinced that you need the Lord to come from heaven to deal with your sins and to save you from them?
Take the sin that has always stood for all sins, it does in our culture, it does and has in every culture from time immemorial: the sin of lust. So much and for so long has this been the representative sin that when we use the term “immoral”, unmoral, unrighteous, when we use the term “immoral” we tend to think only of this one sin. Dorothy Sayers recollects, after making a remark about the seven deadly sins, a young man replyed to her, “I did not know there were seven deadly sins; please tell me the names of the other six.” [Coomes, Dorothy Sayers, 89] But, of course, in our day, in our pornographic culture, a very large portion of the population can hardly believe any longer that lust remains a sin at all, much less a deadly one. What do we think of lust? Is it a deadly sin or scarcely a sin at all?
Malcolm Muggeridge was working as a journalist and a writer in India at one point in his career. And as was his custom he went down to the river to take an evening swim. When he got to the river he saw a woman there. In a letter to his father he told what happened next.
“She came to the river and took off her clothes and stood naked, her brown body just caught by the sun. I suddenly went mad. There came to me that dryness in the back of my throat; that feeling…of wild unreasonableness which is called passion. I darted with all the force of swimming I had to where she was, and then nearly fainted, for she was old and hideous and her feet were deformed and turned inwards and her skin was wrinkled and, worst of all, she was a leper. You have never seen a leper, I suppose; until you have seen one you do not know the worst that human ugliness can be. This creature grinned at me, showing a toothless mask, and the next thing I knew was that I was swimming along in my old way in the middle of the stream – yet trembling…. It was the kind of lesson I needed. When I think of lust now I think of this lecherous woman. Oh, if only I could paint, I’d make a wonderful picture of a passionate boy running after that and call it: ‘The lusts of the flesh.’” [Ian Hunter, Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life, 40-41]
You see Muggeridge’s point. That old, withered, disgusting woman became an image of his own heart that had lusted after her before he knew who she was and what she was. The object of his lust showed him the nature of it: ugly, sick, disgusting. There are, you see, two kinds of people in the world, and only two. There are those who would laugh at Muggeridge’s story, amused at his disappointment to find an ugly woman instead of a beautiful one, but who would find no scandal, nothing ugly, nothing fearful, nothing repulsive in his desire, in his wanting, in his passion. Then there are those who understand precisely what he meant when he spoke of the old woman as an ironic symbol of lust and its consequence; of lust as a desire that is itself leprous, ugly, deformed, repellent, and inhuman. Lust as a desire that must be deeply offensive to God as the willful repudiation of all of man’s higher and nobler instincts, as the complete divorce of sex from love and commitment, and as the objectification and dehumanization of other persons as simply the instruments of one’s own pleasure.
I guarantee you, brothers and sisters, among those many who poured out of Jerusalem and other nearby cities to hear the preaching of John, among those multitudes who were brought to the conviction of their sins, there were a very great number – perhaps mostly men – who confessed that sin first and foremost and agreed in their hearts with John and with the Word of God that lust of that kind was evil and that those who gave way to it desperately needed to be forgiven.
Or take another sin that we are all guilty of all the time; that stains and corrupts everyone’s life whether or not he or she will admit it: the sin of unworthy, proud, selfish, unkind, and foolish speech. Take to heart this self-assessment from Alexander Whyte:
“A godly man used to say when he returned home from a night of table-talk that he would never accept such an invitation again, so remorseful did such nights always leave him; so impossible did he find it for him to hold his peace, and to speak only at the right moment, and only in the right way. And, without his holiness, I have often had his remorse, and so, I am quite sure, have many of you. There is no table we sit at very long that we do not more or less ruin either to ourselves or to some one else. We either talk too much, and thus weary and disgust people; or they weary and disgust us. We start ill-considered, unwise, [untimely or inappropriate] topics. We blurt out our rude minds in rude words. We push aside our neighbor’s opinion, as if both he and his opinion were worthless, and we thrust forward our own as if wisdom would die with us. We do not put ourselves into our neighbor’s place. We have no imagination in conversation, and no humility, and no love. We lay down the law, and we instruct people who could buy us in one end of the market and sell us in the other if they thought us worth the trouble. It is easy to say grace; it is easy to eat and drink in moderation and with decorum and refinement; but it is our tongue that so ensnares us. …to command [the] tongue; to bridle and guide and moderate, and make just the right use of [our] tongue, is a conquest…that not one in a thousand has made…” [The Walk, Character, and Conversation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 244-246]
I guarantee you that there were multitudes among John’s avid followers who, when they confessed their sins, confessed sins of the tongue, sins that under the conviction of John’s preaching had begun to bother them greatly. They now remembered those sins of speech very clearly and the memory made them ashamed of themselves and disgusted with themselves. They felt impure, dirty and they knew for a certainty that they had sinned against God and needed his forgiveness more than they needed anything else in the world.
What did the forerunner do to prepare the way for the Lord? What message was he sent ahead to bring concerning the one who was coming after him? What did the voice calling in the wilderness actually say? He said, “You people are a brood of vipers, you are sinners”, comprehensively, deeply inveterately and you’ve forgotten that most fundamental fact about yourselves. You are acting like you are not great sinners when you are. You are sinners before God and before man and you need his forgiveness. Because once a man or woman was convinced of that fact, he or she was ready to receive and welcome the Lord.
We might think that a message such as John’s, a message about man’s sin and guilt, would be too depressing to be popular. People would be turned off to hear themselves condemned by the great desert preacher. But the truth is intoxicating. And this truth is what opens the ear to the good news. John’s was a powerful message because it opened peoples eyes to reality as it actually is and opened their hearts to see the world and themselves as lying in sin and needing salvation. But it did so while at the same time proclaiming that salvation was coming. Most people in John’s day and most people in our day can’t be made to face the facts, the truth about themselves and the result is that they remain forever cut off from the most wonderful news that has ever been announced or proclaimed in this world. They never see Christ for who and what he is because thinking themselves well they have no thought whatsoever that they need for a doctor. John’s message, honest, searching and necessary as it was, in fact created such a stir that King Herod Antipas feared his influence with the people and had him arrested. Josephus tells us that as well as the Gospel writers. That is how powerful an honest reckoning with sin is. It changes people. It created a movement: this simple fact that people came to deal honestly with themselves about their thoughts, their words, and their deeds. It changed the world in Jesus’ day and it has changed the world ever since whenever there have been large numbers of people who have agreed that they are sinners and desperately need God’s forgiveness.
It is the assumption, the presupposition, of the entire Gospel, as Mark makes plain here in his prologue. Jesus came to save sinners.
“Sin was his errand in this world and it was his only errand. He would never have been in this world at all, either preaching sermons, or doing anything else, but for sin. He could have done everything else for us without coming down into this world at all; everything else but take away our sin. And thus it is that our sin is the true key [with which] to open up all he ever said, all he ever did, while he was with us in this world.” [Whyte, Walk, Character…, 116-117]
The Gospel, the good news is the announcement of the appearance of the Son of God in the world and the establishment of his kingdom. But that kingdom is for repenting sinners and for them only and they and they only will recognize Jesus for the King and Savior he is. No wonder Mark begins with sinners confessing their sins. And no wonder G.K. Chesterton should describe the Bible’s doctrine of the universal sinfulness of mankind as the most “cheerful doctrine” he knew. For it means that in the Bible one can at last find the truth about themselves – difficult as that truth may be to face – and then find the real solution to his true problem.
Erich Fromm, one of the most influential advocates of the modern and still wildly popular psychological theory of self-love and self-affirmation and self-confidence, once admitted that were the bible’s doctrine of original sin – that all men are sinners, seriously and inveterately sinners offending God from the beginning of their lives to the end of their lives – if that doctrine were true Fromm said – his own theory would be, must be false. From taught people to find salvation within them. People who are honest about their sinful hearts and lives know that they will never find salvation there. Many in Jesus’ own day liked themselves and admired themselves too much to admit their radical need, their desperate need for forgiveness and, as a result, favored as they were to be in the world when the Son of God made his appearance as a man, they missed him. Unbelievable but true. They were blind to the astonishing thing that happened and the glorious one who had come among them.
I wish for all of us nothing so much as that we should all feel the true guilt and the terrible weight of our sins – disgusting, ugly, shameful as they are – not that you might be miserable, but that you might be the happiest of men and women in the world. It is the acknowledgement of your own badness, honestly from the heart, that opens your ears to the good news. That confession, that repentance is like a pair of magical spectacle with which, once you put them on, you can suddenly see what you never saw before: the road that leads to God and to heaven and Jesus Christ himself standing at the head of that road.
Take to heart yourselves the great fact that the forerunner of the Messiah considered it his principle calling to convince men and women that they were sinners who needed forgiveness. Only then would they be ready to receive and welcome the Son of God.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of him.