Saturday, August 26, 2006

Preparing the Way: Mark 1:2-8

In ancient times, when a king was set to make a visit to an outlying town, he would send an envoy ahead of him to make preparations for his arrival. One of the matters of concern would be the condition of the roads. If there were unnecessary twists and turns, those would be straightened out to expedite travel. If there were rough places, holes and obstructions that had suffered neglect, they would be given attention so that no unforeseen trouble would hinder the arrival of the king.

It was in a similar way that the Lord announced through His prophets many years in advance that a messenger would come preparing the way for the Messiah. Mark points to two prophetic passages which described the coming of the Messenger. The first is Malachi 3:1, which reads in the English translation of the Old Testament, “Behold, I am going to send My messenger and He will clear the way for Me.” You notice that Mark has reworded the passage by removing the first person pronoun and inserting the second person – he has changed Me to You. “Behold I will send My messenger ahead of You who will prepare Your way.” In this way, we understand that Mark understood the Jesus of the New Testament to be the incarnation of the Jehovah of the Old Testament.

You notice that Mark does not mention Malachi. He strings two quotations from the Old Testament prophets together and mentions only Isaiah by name (though the King James Version uses Greek manuscripts that were altered to prevent misunderstanding here, saying the prophets, rather than Isaiah the prophet). The passage from Malachi sets the stage for the more descriptive prophecy the he intends to be the dominant focus. The quotation is from Isaiah 40:3 – In our English Bibles it is translated from Hebrew as: “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.’” Again, Mark opts for the more subtle rendering, “Make His paths straight,” which again illustrates his awareness of the deity of the coming Messiah.

Four hundred years had elapsed since the last of Israel’s writing prophets. They are called the “silent years,” for no voice of authoritative prophecy was heard in those days. But the Lord had promised that before He came into the world on His Messianic mission of redemption, a messenger would appear in the wilderness announcing His coming, and preparing the way for Him. Only, this messenger was not repairing potholes and cutting new trails into the cities of the near east. The King whose advent he announced was coming to dwell in the hearts of men and women, and the messenger was preparing the way by removing the spiritual obstacles that stood in the way of their receiving Him.

Mark writes, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, … John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching.” Here in this one unique individual, the prophecies of the way-maker for the Messiah are fulfilled. The preaching of John the Baptist marked the coming of the Messiah – God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. And John’s ministry prepared the way for those who would receive Him. There will never be another John the Baptist. But there is a need today for us to take up the task of preparing the way of the Lord, for millions grope in darkness, millions for whom Jesus Christ came and died, but who know neither of His salvation nor their need for Him. What is needed in our day is for God’s people to unite their voices and their lives in the task of preparing the way into the hearts the innumerable multitude who are lost apart from the Savior’s grace. As John the Baptist filled that role in the days of Messiah’s advent, so you and I can fill that role today as we prepare the way for the Lord to enter the hearts of those who need Him. As we look at the unique ministry of John the Baptist, my prayer is that you and I will become contemporary way-makers for Jesus, preparing His way, straightening His paths into the hearts of those we encounter on a daily basis.

I. The Way of the Lord is Prepared By Proclaiming a Strong Message (vv4-5)

The Lord did not send a market analyst or an expert salesman to prepare the way. He sent a prophet. And this prophet was dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt, eating the diet of a wilderness dweller (locusts and wild honey). According to Zechariah 13:4, a hairy robe was the garment of a prophet. John’s appearance is described similar to Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8. This is significant because through Malachi the Lord had announced that “Elijah” was going to come before the great and terrible day of the Lord (Mal 4:5).

The prophet was never popular. He had to announce hard words of sin and judgment. And the prophet’s message would be an affront to our culture of sensitivity and non-offensiveness today. I believe the reason so few receive the message of the gospel today is because we often make such pathetic attempts to soft-sell it. So John proclaimed a strong message concerning sin. It wasn’t popular then, it isn’t popular now. So we make efforts to sanitize the faith, and deal with every issue under the sun except sin. In 1937, H. Richard Neibuhr summarized the message of liberal Christianity with these now-famous words: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[1] The so-called gospel of liberalism that Neibuhr critiqued 70 years ago goes by different names today, but is still no gospel at all. Unless we have a sin problem, we don’t need a Savior. If we don’t need a Savior, then we don’t need Jesus. And if we don’t need Jesus, then the cross was the most inexplicable accident of human history, but it was an accident not deserving one second of our time in meditation. He died, what a shame, now pass the salt please. But we need Him. We need the Cross. We need a Savior because we have a sin problem and that sin problem will lead to our eternal destruction unless we are made right with God.

So John came preaching about sin. And he preached it in the wilderness. The wilderness was a place well-known in Israel’s memory. Because of the sin of their ancestors, 40 years of the Exodus journey were spent wandering through the wilderness. And John stood out in the wilderness beckoning people to come out and identify themselves with the sinfulness of all humanity, and to prepare themselves to receive the coming Lord.

And he preached two points about it:

A. We must repent of sin!

John was preaching a baptism of repentance. The Greek word used here where we read repentance is the word metanoia. It means literally a change of mind. Repentance is not remorse, feeling sorry for what you have done, or more likely sorry that you got caught doing it. And repentance is not reform, vowing to never do it again (sometimes with the necessary disclaimer: and this time I mean it!). No repentance is a change of our way of thinking about sin. It is to stop trying to defend it and justify it, and to stop calling it by pet names, and recognize it for what it is.

And so when the great numbers of people came out to John in the wilderness, they were confessing their sins (v5). Here again, the Greek word is descriptive. The word for confess is homologeo, which means “to say the same thing.” That is, if God calls it sin, we will also call it sin. We confess our sins when we stop trying to sugar coat them or excuse them and use the same words that God uses for them. What words does God use? Sin. Iniquity. Immorality. Transgression. Evil. Are we willing to use those words to describe our actions and thoughts, or do we think we are better than that? Compared to someone else, maybe we look a little better, but compared to God’s standard of holiness, we all fall short and have no grounds for boasting. So we must confess our sins. Confession is not repentance (one can call it sin, but not change the way he or she thinks about it), but repentance must include confession. In order to change our thinking about sin, we have begin to recognize it as sin. And this was part of John’s message to prepare the way of the Lord. But there is a positive side to this strong message as well.

B. We can be forgiven of sin!

Preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The best news about sin is that God is willing to forgive us of it. John was preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sin. It was not the baptism that led to forgiveness, it was the repentance. And the baptism was a symbol of the purification they received from God as they turned from sin and sought His grace of forgiveness.

Contrary to some folk-religious beliefs, baptism does not wash away your sins. Neither does baptism have any saving value. But baptism is an outward symbolic act that demonstrates the inward spiritual transaction that takes place when we turn from sin and seek forgiveness from God. That takes place on the inside. So we visualize it externally in the waters of baptism. John’s baptism differed from Christian baptism in that it indicated repentance and forgiveness in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Ours is done to indicate that we have received God’s forgiveness which the Messiah accomplished for us when He died on the cross of Calvary.

Baptism did not originate with John. Religious practices in various cultures involved ritual washings for purification. John’s baptism most resembled the Jewish practice of baptizing Gentile converts. A Gentile who wanted to convert to Jewish belief and practice would be immersed in water to indicate that he or she had turned from their pagan beliefs and devoted themselves to following the one true God. But John’s message was that it was not only Gentiles who needed to turn from the sins and false beliefs of their past. Israel needed to do it just as much if they were going to be right with God.

John the Baptist was preparing the way for the Lord. One of the ways he did that was by preaching a strong message about sin: we must repent of it, and we can be forgiven of it. In our day, we need to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord into the hearts and lives of others by speaking boldly about sin as well. For, Christ will never look appealing to anyone as long as their sins don’t look repulsive to them. God doesn’t want us to recognize our sinfulness so He can condemn us. He wants us to see sin as it is so He can forgive us. So as we talk with those who don’t know Christ, we do them a disservice by ignoring the subject of sin. Until we know we are sinners, we have no need of a Savior. And that brings us to the second point.

II. The Way of the Lord is Prepared by Pointing to a Mighty Savior (vv7-8)

John was not out in the wilderness to point people’s attention to himself. He wasn’t suggesting that he held the answers to all their problems. Rather, he was pointing them to another who was greater than he. And he pointed to Him as being one of a mightier nature and having a mightier ministry than John himself had.

A. The Coming One was of a Mightier Nature (v7)

After me, One is coming who is mightier than I. That might have been hard to imagine for some people. John the Baptist had spoken more boldly and with more authority than anyone in the last four centuries. He stood alone challenging the religious and political establishment of his day. Estimates are that 300,000 people made the pilgrimage out to the wilderness to hear him and God only knows how many were baptized by him in the Jordan River. But he says there’s one mightier to come.

John says that he is not even worthy to stood down and untie the thong of His sandals. In that day of traveling by foot along the dirty, muddy, and dusty roads, shoes were removed upon entry to anyone’s home. In fact, that is still the case in most of the world today. So, when you came to someone’s home, their lowliest servant would meet you at the door, and would bow before you to loosen your sandals and wash your feet before entry into his master’s house. John is saying here that the coming one, the Lord Jesus Christ, was so mighty that he was not fit to even be his lowliest house-slave.

We’ve already pointed out that in the Old Testament prophecies Mark includes here, the waymaker is preparing the way for God Himself. This tells us that early Christians easily recognized the person of Jesus Christ to be more than a man. He was God himself, incarnate as a man. If those who flocked to the wilderness only looked to John, then their trust was in a mere man. But he pointed them to Jesus Christ, the God-man, as one of a mightier nature.

B. The Coming One had a Mightier Ministry (v8)

John’s baptism in water was symbolic of a greater reality to come. By baptizing them in water, John was preparing the people to receive the gift of salvation that the Messiah was coming to accomplish. John’s baptism brought people to the threshold of the Kingdom, but there was a greater baptism needed for full entry. God had promised through the prophet Ezekiel of a coming day when He would sprinkle clean water on His people, and they would be clean from all their filthiness and idols. He said in that day, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ezek 36:26-27). John’s baptism was an external washing that symbolized the internal cleansing that only the Lord could accomplish by placing His Spirit within us. This baptism of the Spirit would bring about real and lasting change which would work from the inside out. No man and no physical element could accomplish a cleansing like this. It was a work of divine grace that only God Himself could accomplish in us.

So Jesus, when He had finished the work of redemption on the cross and through His resurrection, promised His followers that He would send the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:7). He told them on the day that He ascended into heaven (Acts 1:5), “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” And so it happened. On the day of Pentecost, those who had believed in Christ were overwhelmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, causing them to say, “This is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind …’” (Acts 2:16-17). And that baptism of the Spirit takes place every time a repentant soul puts faith and trust in Jesus Christ. He comes to dwell inside of that person’s life in the person of the Holy Spirit, making them brand new creations as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold new things have come.”

John the Baptist had a unique ministry of pointing people to this coming Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. But it is this Jesus alone who can truly cause the change of life that we so desperately need as He removes our sins from us, and indwells us to empower us to live the rest of our days for Him. Today, when we receive Him as God’s gift of salvation, we visualize it through water baptism. We are not baptized with water in order to be saved, but in order to demonstrate outwardly the inward reality salvation we have received by the flooding of God’s Spirit into our lives unto salvation.

Jesus said two very interesting things about John the Baptist which are recorded in the other gospels. In Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28, we read that Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” That is quite a testimony for the Lord Jesus to speak over someone’s life. But He goes on to say, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” That means that as believers in Christ and citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, you and I have the opportunity to exceed the work of John the Baptist in our service to Christ.

As John prepared the way for people to receive the coming Messiah, we have the privilege and responsibility to daily prepare human hearts for the entry of the King of Kings through the witness of our words and our way of life. It was the eighteenth century German classicist Goethe said, “There are many echoes in the world, but few voices.”[2] Indeed John the Baptist was one of the few unique voices in the history of the world. But today there is a great need for all who have experienced the true baptism of the Messiah to whom John pointed to join our voices to his in echo of the supremacy of Christ and the need for Him in every human heart.

Just as those emissaries of ancient kings had the responsibility of preparing the way and straightening the paths for their kings to travel upon, you and I have the opportunity to follow in line with John the Baptist, preparing highways through the stony hearts and desert of human beings, over which the King of Kings will travel as His gospel is announced to them.[3] Though our role may only be the laying of one brick on the pathway, knowing the King and what He will do when He arrives at the heart of that person, may we strive diligently to lay that brick for the glory of God and the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom.



[1] Neibuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988 [Reprint, 1937]), 193.

[2] Cited in John Henry Burn, The Preacher’s Homiletic Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996 [Reprint]), 10.

[3] Adapted from Bishop H. C. Potter, in Burn, 11.

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