The Ministry of the Forerunner – Mark 1:1-8

Introduction:

Have you ever asked yourself who from history you would like to meet?  If I could pick one person (besides Jesus), I think that it might be John the Baptist.  Jesus said of John that “among those born of women none is greater than John.” (Luke 7:28)  Realistically I know that I can’t go back in time, however Mark has given us the opportunity to go back and meet John through his account of the Gospel.  This is how Mark introduces us to Jesus. Everything about John introduces us to Jesus.  This is the significance of this passage.  John fulfilled the prophecy of the forerunner and consequently his life and ministry pointed to Jesus.   Today, as we look at our passage, we will see that Mark 1:2-8 describes 5 features of John the Baptist’s life that prepared the way for Christ and fulfilled the role of a forerunner.  As we look at each of these features that point to Christ we need to remember that this is what made John so great in the eyes of the Lord.

I. The Prophecy about John prepared the way for Christ (vv. 2-3)

The first feature of John’s life that prepared the way for Christ and fulfilled the role of a forerunner is found in vv. 2-3.  Here we see that the prophecy about John prepared the way for Christ.   In these verses Mark turns our attention back to the OT prophets, which is notable considering that he was writing to a primarily Gentile audience.  This certainly highlights the importance of the OT teaching on this point.

Mark points back to the OT by saying, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…”  In verse two Mark tells us that he is going to quote from the Old Testament; specifically, from the prophet Isaiah.  This is exactly what he does, however he does not do it immediately.  Before quoting Isaiah in verse three Mark first quotes Malachi 3:1.  So why does Mark say that he is quoting from Isaiah?  It is because the quote from Isaiah is the main point that Mark is trying to get to.  This quote from Malachi simply introduces the theme that Mark wants to point out.  It is the Old Testament theme of a forerunner to the Messiah.

 

a. The prophecy of John’s identity as the forerunner

 

With his Mal 3:1 quotation Mark is pointing to the promise of a forerunner and identifying John as that forerunner.

Look at what Mal 3:1 says…

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

Here we see that the Lord God himself is coming, but before He comes He will send His messenger.  This messenger will be a forerunner for the Lord, and a sign of the Lord’s coming.  In inter-testamental times there was a rabbinical debate concering whether YHWH was coming or the Messiah was coming… We know that they were both wrong… and right.  The point here is the John was the forerunner and his arrival was a sign of the Lord’s arrival as the Messiah.

            b. The prophecy of John’s work as the forerunner

John’s arrival served as more than just a sign.  Turning to Isa 40:3 Mark highlights John’s work as the forerunner.  The forerunner’s job was to make preparation for the Lord.  Isaiah and Mark both employ an illustration from ancient road construction.  Roads in Ancient world were obviously horrible needed work for a king to pass.  Thus someone was sent ahead to prepare the way.  Here the King is God Himself:

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  (Isaiah 40:3-5)

The forerunner was to prepare the way spiritually for the arrival of the divine Messiah.  “John’s task was to get the people to remove the obstacles and to smooth the road.” (Hiebert, 25)

As we will see in the next verse John was fulfilling this role.  He was a voice calling out, or in this case preaching, in preparation for the coming of the Lord.  He came “just as” (kathos from v. 1) the prophets said.

Even before the Lord Jesus began his public ministry John was pointing to His arrival, and preparing the way for it.

II. The Ministry of John prepared the way for Christ. (v. 4)

 

The second feature of John the Baptist’s life that prepared the way for Christ was his ministry.  We see this in v. 4 where Mark provides a synopsis of John’s ministry for his readers.  Here Mark tells us that John “The Baptist” (= “The one Baptizing” or “The Baptizer”) was in the wilderness (=Uninhabited area along the Jordan River)More important than the location of John’s ministry was the actual substance of his ministry.  Mark tells us that John’s ministry was made up primarily of preaching and baptizing.

a. John’s ministry of Preaching

As to the exact details of John’s preaching, Mark doesn’t give us as many details as the other gospel writers. However, he does make it clear that preaching was a priority in John’s ministry. The prophetic voice had been silenced for 400 years, and now in preparation for the Messiah God sent one final prophet.  He was the voice crying out—preaching!—in the wilderness

It’s worth noting that while John was known as the Baptizer, preaching was the primary focus of his ministry. R.T. France writes: “it is clear from all the accounts we have of John both in the NT and in Josephus that his focus was rather on repentance in the face of the threat of divine judgment, and his object was not simply to get people baptised, but to call together the repentant and restored people of God for the imminent eschatological crisis.”[1]

The people were unprepared for the Messiah, they were unprepared to face eternity, they were in desperate need of repentance… and God sent them a preacher!  This is what God does.  He sends preachers and he uses the preaching of his word as a means to point people to Christ.

 

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?  How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!”

Romans 10:14–15 (NASB95)

If you want to grow closer to Christ, find good preaching.  It is not the only means God uses, but it is certainly one of the most important.  That is why God sent John to preach in preparation for Christ.

Even though Mark doesn’t provide any examples of John’s preaching, he does provide a brief synopsis, essentially John’s message consisted of a “baptism repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

b. John’s ministry of Baptism

Baptism was a major part of John’s ministry.  What’s more, this baptism was unique.  Really there were only three comparables in the NT times:

  • OT ritual cleansing, which wasn’t all that similar
  • Essene Baptism, which was a daily practice of piety not a one time sign of repentance
  • Proselyte baptism, which was when gentiles when through a cleansing baptism before becoming God-fearers to signify there unworthiness to be God’s people.

This third example of NT water rites is the most similar to John’s baptism. If we were to sum up John’s message it would go something like this: “Because of your sinful lifestyles you are not acting like the people of God.  You need to repent.  And as a sign of your repentance you need to be baptized just like a Gentile.”  This would have been an unbelievably offensive message!  But it was a message that the people needed to hear.  The Lord, Jesus Himself, was on his way and the people needed to get ready.  They thought that because they were the descendants of Abraham they deserved the favor of God, but because of their sin this just was not true.  They needed to repent.  They needed to realize the how wrong they were and be sorry for their sins.  They also need to turn away from their sins and change their lives.  This is what repentance is.  It is turning away from sin and turning to God.

John assured the people that if they had this repentant heart then they would be forgiven.  This is what Mark meant when he said that this baptism of repentance was “for the forgiveness of sins.”  He was not teaching that the outward work of baptism results in salvation.  His point is that baptism is an outward sign of an inward attitude that leads to forgiveness.  It’s very important to note that in this verse “forgiveness of sins” modifies repentance NOT baptism.  In other words, you aren’t forgiveness as a result of baptism.  You are baptized as a sign of repentance, which is what led to your forgiveness.  This was John’s message, and in this way John prepared the way for the Messiah.

III. The Response to John prepared the way for Christ (v. 5)

In addition to the prophecy and the ministry, a third feature of John’s life that prepared the way for Christ was the response to John.  We see this in v. 5 where Mark describes a multifaceted response to John.

 

a. The people responded to John with curiosity

Clearly Mark is engaging in a bit of hyperbole here when he says that “all” these people came out to hear John, but certainly there were a number of people following John, and a great deal of curiosity about John.  This is amazing because John was probably around 25 miles and 4,000 ft in elevation from Jerusalem.  I guess he was controversially and there were no movies so everyone wanted to see the first prophet in 400 years!  Some estimate that there were 300,000 people were there… I’m not sure where that came from, but it was in a commentary so it must be true (or not).

John’s impact is illustrated not only by Mark’s record but also by

  • the fact that Josephus devoted more space to John than Jesus
  • the fact that Jesus was continually asked about John

The curiosity surrounding John demonstrated the massive response to his ministry.  Unfortunately, for many this only had a hardening effect (Rom 1:24). This is illustrated most notably by Herod in Mark 6, who heard a lot of John’s preaching but still rejected Christ. This just illustrates that the more you hear and reject the harder your heart get.  Unfortunately this was the case with many.  However not with everyone…

b. The people responded to John with confession

Mark also tells us that many were not only curious but they were also responsive.  They were even baptized as a sign of repentance, which is quite amazing considering what we’ve already seen about John’s baptism.  They confessed, and agreed with God about their sin.  The response of these individuals went a long way toward preparing the way for Christ.  Two biblical examples will suffice to demonstrate this:

  • John 1:35-44: Andrew was a disciple of John before he was a disciple of Jesus.
  • Acts 19:1-7: Paul found faithful individuals who were still following John’s teaching.

In both of these instances God providentially used the response to John to prepare the way for Christ and His church.

IV. The Lifestyle of John prepared the way for Christ (v. 6)

A fourth feature of John’s life that prepared the way for Christ was the lifestyle of John.  We see this feature in v. 6.  It is clear that John’s lifestyle demarcated him as a prophet and ultimately as the forerunner to the Messiah.

 

a. John wore the clothes of a forerunner  

At this point is seems pretty clear that John is the forerunner.  However, just in case there is any confusion Mark gives us a description of John in verse 6 that makes it clear that John is the forerunner.  First Mark describes John’s outer appearance: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist….”  The clothes that are described to us here are very practical clothes.  They were suited well for life in the wilderness.  Camel’s hair robe would have been durable and inexpensive.  The belt was not an extravagant belt as many in John’s day wore, but rather just a simple leather belt meant to keep his robe in place.

His clothes were well suited for life in the wilderness, but more than that they identified Him as a prophet and a forerunner.  This is what prophets wore:


“Also it will come about in that day that the prophets will each be ashamed of his vision when he prophesies, and they will not put on a hairy robe in order to deceive…

Zechariah 13:4

More importantly, this is what Elijah wore, and as we’ve seen John is a fulfillment of the prophecy that the Elijah will precede the Messiah.

            b. John ate the diet of a forerunner

This would have been a practical diet for a man ministering in the wilderness.  John would have been able to find locusts easily, and they would have been a great source protein.  Just in case you were curious there are four different kinds of locusts that are allowed in the Old Testament (Lev 11:22).  The honey also would have been easy to find.  Wild bees commonly lived in hollowed trees and under rocks (Deut 32:13; 1 Sam 14:25).  I guess that you would say that it was almost like a desert after the locusts.

From this it is clear that John lived a very humble lifestyle.  He was not interested in the luxuries of this world (Matt 11:8).  He had received a task from God, and this was the focal point of his life.  He was not the kind of guys who just told people that they needed to repent from their worldliness; he lived out his message.   If we want to prepare people’s hearts for Jesus the way John prepared for Jesus our lives better be consistent with our message.

 

V. The Message of John prepared the way for Christ (v. 7-8)

The fifth feature of John’s life that prepared the way for Christ was his message. We saw before that John lived out his message, and now in vv. 7-8 we see that his message was never about himself.

 

a. John preached about a mightier person

John was focused on one who was mightier than he was.  In fact, this mightier one—Jesus—was so great that in John’s mind he couldn’t undo his sandals.  There is a great deal of cultural significance to this illustration that John uses.  In that culture the feet were disgusting (NIKE was making Air Jordans yet, so opened toed sandals were all there was).  That made anything to do with the feet an undesirable task.  In fact, undoing sandals was actually the only thin at a Jewish slave wouldn’t do for his master.  Thus, John was essentially saying that he was not worthy to be Jesus’ slave.  And this was in response to Luke 3:15 where the people wanted make John the Messiah!

When John had every chance to glorify himself He chose to Glorify Jesus, and he did so because he understood that Jesus was mightier than he was.  What about you?  Who’s mightier in your mind? Don’t ever forget what John knew, that Jesus is mightier than we are.  Don’t forget the Mighty One… it’s your job to point to him.

 

b. John preached about a mightier ministry

Because John understood that Jesus was mightier, he also knew that Jesus’ ministry would be mightier than his.  This was John’s point in v. 8

John’s ministry was external and preparatory:

  • Physical baptism did not actually take away sin
  • Pointed out the need for confession and repentance
  • Demonstrates our failure to follow God

Jesus ministry is spiritual and ultimate

  • Baptism with the Spirit (regeneration) actually takes away sin
  • Brings about repentance
  • Allows us to exercise faith and be saved
  • Fulfills Ezek 36:26-27

Jesus was mightier and so was his ministry! This was true for John, and it is true of us as well.  If we are going to have a mighty ministry we need to humbly point to Jesus and trust his power.  As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:7:

So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.:

Our ministries cannot save individuals.  Our ministries can only point to the one who can save. John understood this and that is why his message point to Jesus.

 

Conclusion

I said I would like to be able to meet John, but something tells me if I did he would only want to talk about Jesus.  Everything Mark tells us about John points to Jesus.

  1. Prophecy
  2. Ministry
  3. Response
  4. Lifestyle
  5. Message

Everything about John was Christ-centered.  That is what made him great.  In John’s own words:

“He must increase, but I must decrease.  John 3:30

What about you? Is this your attitude?  Certainly you want a mighty ministry and to do great things.

Let me submit to you that if this is true—you want to be used by God—then you need to stop focusing on the great things you are going to do and you need to start pointing people to Jesus.

  • When the criticism comes, don’t worry about defending yourself.
  • When someone else gets your credit, don’t be a “self-promoter.”
  • When the people want to make you the king of the church because of your gifts, don’t let them.

Remember, if you want to be used like John, then it must be about Christ.  We must decrease! He must increase!


[1]R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 65.

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