Sermon text: Mark 1:2–8
 As it is written in the Prophets:
“Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.”
 “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make His paths straight.’ ”
 John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.  Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  And he preached, saying, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose.  I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
We come now to the prologue of the Gospel of Mark. As Mark opens up his masterful story about the life of Jesus, this great drama of redemption, he sets the scene in the wilderness—not in Jerusalem, the place where God promised He would make His presence dwell; not in the schools of the prestigious rabbis, where scholars debated about the most profound biblical truths; and not in the synagogues, where the scribes and Pharisees taught the Scriptures from the seat of Moses. But in the wilderness! This is not what we would expect. John inaugurates the announcement of the kingdom of God in the wilderness, and Jesus is baptized and then tempted in the wilderness. Why in the wilderness?
The Gospel account is drawing from the Book of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s vision of the redemption and restoration of Israel says there will be a new beginning, a new creation, and a new exodus in a wilderness that is transformed by God’s personal presence (Isa. 41:18–19; 44:3–4, etc.). Isaiah 43:19 says, “Behold, I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Verse 21 speaks of a recreated Israel, a new people generated by the saving and creative power of God: “This people I have formed for Myself; they shall declare My praise.” That word, “formed” (יָצַר) is the same word used in Genesis 2:7 where it says “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” The end-time new creation would inaugurate in the wilderness; the final, eternal end-time exodus of God’s people would begin in the wilderness. Moses was sent from the wilderness to announce the redemption of God’s people in the exodus; so John the Baptist and Jesus would come from the wilderness to announce the final exodus Jubilee of the people of God.
John was “the voice of one crying [out] in the wilderness.” This was not a mere human voice that articulates reverberating sounds, but a prophetic message originating from outside the sphere of human domain, tracing its origin to the divine. John was a prophet who declared the Word of God. For 400 years, there was no prophetic voice. Now John comes piercing the silence with a voice of thunder, to announce that the day of God’s visitation had come!
I. His Prophetic Background
This is indicated in vv. 2–3: “As it is written in the Prophets: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.’ ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the LORD; make His paths straight.’” There is a discrepancy in the early Greek manuscripts, and you may see that reflected if you’re reading the ESV, which instead of saying that “it is written in the Prophets,” says “it is written in Isaiah the prophet.” Which reading reflects Mark’s original has little practical consequence to the meaning of the text. Even though Mark quotes from Malachi, and Isaiah, it was not uncommon for Jews to introduce composite quotations under the name of the most prominent prophet quoted (which in this case is Isaiah). Nonetheless, I prefer the New King James’s reading since this reflects the majority of surviving Greek manuscripts.
Mark’s point is to show John the Baptist’s prophetic background. Isaiah prophesied of John’s coming 700 years before he was born, and Malachi, 400 years prior. He is one of the few individuals who have ever lived whose life was so historically significant that it was expressly foretold by the Prophets in the Scriptures. John had a uniquely privileged role in the outworking of God’s plan of redemption. He stands on the precipice of the fulfillment of all that the Prophets anticipated. He was ordained to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the royal ambassador commissioned by Heaven to prepare the way for the King of glory.
In Mark 1:2, the quotation is from Malachi 3:1. But Mark abbreviates it, so let’s turn there it to see what it’s teaching: “‘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, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,’ says the LORD of hosts.” So there are two individuals spoken of in this passage. The first is God’s messenger; that’s John the Baptist. The second is “the Lord,” who is “the Messenger of the covenant,” who “suddenly comes to His temple” to take up His throne and reign in the midst of Israel. That’s what Jesus did when He rose and ascended and sat in heavenly places to reign at God’s right hand over the New Israel, His church. But notice the identity of the One for whom John the Baptist prepares the way. Malachi says he prepares the way for “the Lord.” And when he calls him, “the Messenger of the covenant,” Malachi is identifying Him as the Angel of Yahweh, who according to the Book of Exodus, led Israel out of Egypt and is identified and worshiped as God.
So when Mark quotes Malachi 3:1 and applies it to John the Baptist and Jesus, he is situating these two individuals in relationship to one another according to their Scriptural identity. He is identifying John as the coming forerunner of Messiah, and he is identifying Jesus as not only the Messiah, but as God Himself who manifests His presence among His people. This is a clear declaration of the deity of the Lord Jesus.
In fact, the first three verses of Mark’s Gospel contain three declarations of the divinity of Christ. In verse 1, Christ is “the Son of God,” coequal and co-eternal with the Father. In verse 2, Christ is the מַלְאַ֨ךְ הַבְּרִ֜ית, the “Angel of the covenant” from the exodus, the “Lord” (אָדוֹן) God Himself. In verse 3, quoting from Isaiah 40:3, He is “the LORD” (יהוה). Thus right out of the gate we have three testimonies that Jesus is the divine Messiah, because only a divine Messiah can rescue us from us sins. As Isaiah 43:11 says, “I, even I, am the LORD, and besides Me there is no savior.”
It was fitting to quote Malachi, because it speaks of the coming of Elijah the prophet before the day of God’s visitation. Malachi 4:5: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.” This prophecy was fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist. In Matthew 11:14, Jesus was speaking of John the Baptist, and He said, “if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.”
And that’s Mark’s point in chapter 1, verse 6, where he calls attention to the peculiar garb and undomesticated habits of the prophet. “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” If you remember, in 2 Kings chapter 1, when Ahaziah fell through the lattice of his upper room and was injured, he sent messengers to inquire of Baal-Zebub, the false god of Ekron. But the Lord sent Elijah to overtake the messengers while they were on their way, and he rebuked them and pronounced the judgment of God upon the king of Samaria. And when the messengers returned to the king, he wondered who this prophet was. In 2 Kings 1:7–8, we read, “Then he [that’s the king of Syria] said to them, ‘What kind of man was it who came up to meet you and told you these words?’ So they answered him, ‘A hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist.’ And he said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’” The peculiar garb of that rustic prophet immediately identified him.
John had a lot more in common with Elijah than just his clothing. Both were true prophets. Both were desert ascetics with rigorous lifestyles of fasting, self-denial, and prayer. Both were so ablaze with zeal for God’s holiness that they had to live in exile from the population centers of the sinful masses. Both were so penetrating and pure in their preaching that it was impossible for them to conform to the religious status quo. Both are described in Hebrews 11:37–38: “They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.” Both were prophets of fire, proclaiming a God who is “consuming fire,” preaching judgment. Both stood pretty much solo in declaring the judgment of God upon wayward authorities in Israel. Both became the number one most wanted on the hit lists of the corrupt kings.
These similarities were God’s doing, and only God’s doing. No one could possibly imitate Elijah so effectively. Sure, many false prophets tried to imitate him; Zechariah 13:4 mentions the false prophets who wore “a robe of coarse hair to deceive.” But they no more approximated Elijah’s stature in holiness than a three-year-old with finger paint can paint like Michelangelo. If anyone has any doubt that Jesus is the true Messiah, there are clear proofs at every detail of His life. But if that weren’t enough, all you have to do is look at His forerunner, John the Baptist. He’s the only man in history to fit the bill as the Elijah to come. He’s the only one who fulfills Malachi 3:1 and 4:5. Everything about him speaks to his identity as a true prophet, and his message was that he was not the Messiah, but that he came to prepare the way for Him.
So this raises a question for us: How did he prepare the way? What must people do to receive the Messiah? What did they have to do in John’s day, and what do we have to do in our day?
II. His Peculiar Baptism
Mark 1:4–5: “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.” John came in the spirit and power of Elijah pronouncing the judgment of God upon the sinfulness of man. He confronted sin with prophetic boldness; he commanded repentance with divine authority. And the God who sent him commissioned him to command a provisionary ordinance that symbolized a rightful response to his message.
“John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” This is peculiar. It was not customary for the Jews to baptize people like this, much less multitudes of other Jews; much less, Jews from Judea and Jerusalem who lived in proximity to the temple. If they wanted to get right with God, why wouldn’t they go to the temple instead of way out into the wilderness?
John’s setting, as well as his baptism, was a blatant offense to the institutional religion of his day. It was a scathing indictment against the apostasy of the religious establishment. Although there was a remnant of true believers, generally speaking, the religion of the Second Temple era had fallen into a corrupt combination of antinomianism and legalism. Jesus would later say in Luke 11:52, “Woe to you lawyers! [They were not lawyers like we have in courtrooms today; they were the scholars and teachers of the Law of Moses.] For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves [that is, enter into the Kingdom of God through salvation], and those who were entering in you hindered.” This same pattern has repeated itself throughout church history. And the same kind of dead religion prevails among most professing Christian believers today.
In the first place, established Judaism had fallen into antinomianism. Most thought they were right with God on the basis of two things. First was their Hebraic lineage as descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But being a physical descendent of Abraham didn’t guarantee salvation. So we read in Matthew 3:7–10: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’”
Then he says in verse 11, “I baptize you with water unto repentance.” John’s baptism demolished spiritual pride by calling for genuine repentance. No one is born a true believer. There must be genuine conversion. Peter said in Acts 3:19, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Richard Baxter said, “You must be made new men, or you will be dead men.” You may have heard the saying that God has many children, but no grandchildren. Just because your parents are believers doesn’t mean that you’re automatically a child of God. You must be converted by the power of the new birth.
The Jews also confided in their profession of the Shema. Every day they would confess Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” They even made phylacteries, which were little boxes that contained a tiny Scripture scroll with the Shema written on it. They would wear these on their forehead or left forearms to show how devout they were. But they confused the profession of faith with the possession of faith. They professed to believe in God, but as Paul said in Titus 1:16, “They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.” Their religion was of the head but not of the heart. George Whitefield said, “Many believers will miss heaven by just 18 inches… the distance between their head and their heart.” By calling the people of Judea to repent and be baptized, John was saying in effect that their profession of faith was vain. Faith that does not evince the fruit of repentance is a dead faith that does not profit the soul.
In the second place, Jewish religion had become terribly legalistic. Mark talks about this in 7:3–4: “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.” But these were the traditions of men that had no warrant from the Word of God. The Jews prided themselves in such externalisms, but they ignored the greater importance of the internal, the condition of the heart. The Lord said to them, “You are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). They measured godliness in terms of what could be performed by the effort of man’s will apart from the intervention of supernatural grace. They ignored the necessity of the internal, transforming power of the Spirit’s work. And even worse, they thought that their putrid works and superficial religion earned them merit and favor before God, but their failed to believe the righteousness that was of God’s provision. Like Paul said in Romans 10:3, “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.”
So John’s baptism cuts through their dead religion. By baptizing in the wilderness, he was saying that their religion was so forsaken of God that to get right with Him, one had to leave the religious establishment and face persecution from it. He was communicating the message of Isaiah 52:11, which says, “Depart! Depart! Go out from there, touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her, be clean, you who bear the vessels of the LORD.” The context there is the new exodus. John was basically saying that Jerusalem had become as corrupt as Egypt, and that the new exodus inaugurated by the coming Messiah would free the people from idolatrous false religion as they were led out into the wilderness to follow God.
But there’s more to it than that. John’s baptism was unique. It was different from Christian baptism, but it was also the precursor to it. Some scholars insist that the word βάπτισμα in the Greek, translated baptism, is a uniquely Christian word. R. T. France says its first occurrence in Greek literature is in the New Testament. John’s baptism was a new thing, a new ordinance, ordained to inaugurate the coming of the new King. It only had one parallel in his day. Although the Jews practiced various ceremonial washing, the closest parallel was in the plunging of proselytes into water. Proselytes were Gentiles who desired to be converted to the God of Israel. Their baptism was a testimony that they had renounced their old pagan religion, and were being cleansed in order to worship God purely and truly. Proselyte baptism was a recognition of their past sinfulness and a testimony of their present repentance.
But nobody practiced proselyte baptism on Jews! And so John’s baptism was calling Jews to a radical recognition of their sinfulness. In effect, it was saying to the people, “If you would truly be converted to God, you must confess yourself to be no better than a Gentile dog. In spite of your profession of faith, irrespective of all your religious deeds, you are in the same condition before God as a pagan and idolator. There is no merit in you, nothing good in you. You must renounce yourself, renounce your works, and renounce your dead religion. You must be cleansed of not only of your sins, but of your inherent sinfulness. You must take on a new identity and endeavor after a radically different pattern of life.” That’s why the end of verse 5 says that they all “went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.” To be baptized by John was to make a radical confession of one’s sinfulness. It was to announce that the only way you could possibly get right with God is if He freely forgives your sins for His pure mercy’s sake.
Of course, the self-righteous were too proud to repent. They were too proud of their vast learning, too proud of their feigned piety, too proud of their religious attainments. So John’s message is a two-edged sword: he preaches salvation to the penitent and judgment to the impenitent.
III. His Preparatory Message
All four Gospel accounts stress that John came with a preparatory message, to prepare people’s hearts to receive Jesus. Mark doesn’t talk about John’s emphasis on the coming judgment, but Matthew and Luke do. John’s preaching made a sharp distinction between true and false believers. In Matthew 3:12, John says, “His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Wheat and chaff of course would be contained together when the plant was harvested. To separate them, men in the ancient world would gather the wheat on the top of a hill or a threshing floor. And they would thrust in their winnowing fork and hurl the wheat up into the air. The chaff was lighter than the wheat, so the wind would catch it, and it would blow downwind and gather in a pile. After the sifting process was done, the wheat would be gathered into a barn or storehouse and the chaff would be burned.
John says that this is what the coming Messiah will do. He will gather in His elect and He will separate the chaff from the wheat and burn the chaff in the fire of eternal judgment. The eschatological Day of the Lord had inaugurated; God’s presence was to be manifested and applied in judgment and salvation. Hence it was urgent to get right with God, to be prepared for the imminent judgment that Messiah would usher in.
John’s preaching therefore shows us what must be an indispensable element of all true gospel preaching. Charles Bridges said that preaching must “trace the line of demarcation between the Church and the world,” following the Scriptures. He points to the biblical testimony that distinguishes two classes of people:
They are described by their state before God, as righteous or wicked (Prov. 14:32; Mal. 3:18)—by their knowledge or ignorance of the Gospel, as spiritual or natural men (1 Cor. 2:14–15)—by their special regard to Christ, as believers or unbelievers (Mark 16:16; John 3:18, 36)—by their interest in the Spirit of God, “being in the Spirit, or having not the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9)—by their habits of life, “walking after and minding, the things of the Spirit, or the things of the flesh” (Rom. 8:1, 5)—by their respective rules of conduct, the word of God, or “the course of this world” (Ps. 119:105; Eph. 2:2)—by the Masters whom they respectively obey, the servants of God, or the servants of Satan (Rom. 6:16)—by the road in which they travel, the narrow way or the broad road (Matt. 7:13–14)—by the ends to which their roads are carrying them, life or death—heaven or hell (Rom. 8:13; Matt. 25:46).
We should each ask ourselves: which one of these two classes of people do I find myself in? We should try ourselves by the marks of Scripture to see if we are indeed among the wheat or whether our religious profession is nothing but chaff. And the Baptist’s message to us is to make sure we are truly converted.
John the Baptist preached the full message of God without partiality. He preached the Good News in the light of the bad news, salvation as well as judgment, God’s goodness as well as His severity. He wielded the sword of the Word without shaving off the rough edges. His one aim was to glorify and prepare the way for the Lord rather than to pander to the pleasures of his hearers. To be clear, his aim was indeed the conversion of souls, but his message wasn’t tailored to win the approval of man at the expense of the approval of God. His performance in the great drama of Mark’s Gospel was for “the audience of One.”
Much of modern evangelism has forgotten these truths. Its primary aim is to win converts to Christianity, but the truth of God is often sacrificed on the altar of achieving the winning of converts. The problem is, when we fail to declare “the whole counsel of God,” both of salvation and judgment, then the message becomes distorted or diluted and loses its potency to do true, eternal good to souls. A.W. Pink wrote,
Once a man makes the conversion of sinners his prime design and all-consuming end, he is exceedingly apt to adopt a wrong course. Instead of striving to preach the truth in its purity — he will tone it down so as to make it more palatable to the unregenerate. Impelled by a single force, moving in one fixed direction — his object is to make conversion easy, and therefore, favorite passages (like John 3:16) are dwelt upon incessantly, while others are ignored or pared away. It inevitably reacts upon his own theology, and various verses in the Word are shunned, if not repudiated.
John the Baptist shows that the glory of Christ must be the primary aim of evangelism. And if this is our focus, then we will not cherry-pick truths from the Word of God. We will teach “all things, whatsoever Christ has commanded” to all people (Matt. 28:20). We will declare the truth in its unadulterated fullness rather than being ashamed of those truths that make people-pleasers blush.
And when the Lord works true conversion in the heart of a person, He gives them a faith-enabled regard for His whole Word. Not that every part becomes equally sweet to the soul, but every part, no matter how bitter to the tastes of the flesh, is esteemed and loved for the sweet effects it produces in our souls. The healthy believer will be like the Apostle John in Revelation 10; when he ate the scroll, though it became bitter to his stomach, was sweet as honey in his mouth” (vv. 9–10). So let’s not be selective or partial in our handling of Scripture. “A whole Bible,” said J.C. Ryle, “makes a whole Christian,” that is, a whole and healthy believer. John the Baptist’s message aimed to make true and healthy converts for the glory of God, for the praise of Messiah, and for lasting, eternal, spiritual fruit that’ll withstand the trial by fire at the judgment of the last day. That same message is as needful and urgent today as it was two thousand years ago.
Finally, look at what Mark says John specifically preached. It wasn’t all judgment, for John was a preacher of Christ. Verses 7–8: “And he preached, saying, ‘There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” In that day, it was the task of a slave to unstrap a person’s sandals and wash their feet. That was too menial of a task for a disciple to perform on his rabbi. But John is saying, ‘I’m not worthy to be called his disciple; indeed, I’m not even worthy to be His slave!” Later, Peter would take that further, and say, ‘I’m not even worthy for the Lord to unstrap my sandals, as it were, I’m not even worthy for Him to wash my feet.’ This isn’t because they had low self-esteem; but rather, because they understood who Jesus is, they esteemed the measureless majesty of His Person. There’s the fourth declaration of the deity of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.
And the fifth declaration of His deity is found in the last phrase of verse 8: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The background of this is in the Prophets, who stress the prophetic hope that in the last days God would “pour out” His Spirit on His people. Isaiah 32:15 says, “Until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is counted as a forest.” From the Prophets’ perspective, when the kingdom of God comes, it is because God Himself visits His people. God is the one who pours out the Spirit like water on the thirsty ground. God floods His people with the effusion of the Spirit to make them flourish with spiritual life and fruitfulness. And here that God has come to us in Jesus Christ. I close with some a quote from J.C. Ryle:
Let us ask ourselves, as we leave the passage, ‘How much we know by practical experience of the truths which John preached?’ What think we of Christ? Have we felt our need of Him, and fled to Him for peace? Is He king over our hearts, and all things to our souls?—What think we of the Holy Ghost? Has He wrought any work in our hearts? Has He renewed, and changed them? Has He made us partakers of the divine nature? Life or death depend on our answer to these questions.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 57.
 Deuteronomy 4:24.
 “βάπτισμα is an exclusively Christian word, which appears for the first time in the NT.” R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, 66. France writes, “βαπτισμός occurs in a handful of medical texts of the second century A.D. and later. In the NT it occurs only in the plural, and refers (with the possible exception of Heb. 6:2) only to ritual washings other than baptism. βάπτισμα occurs only in the singular.” The Gospel of Mark, 66fn.
 France, The Gospel of Mark, 66.
 Quoted in Joel R. Beeke, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008), 263.
 See Romans 2:4–6; 11:22.
 Acts 20:27.
 A.W. Pink, “Present-Day Evangelism,” July 1949 (https://gracegems.org/Pink/present_day_evangelism.htm, accessed 9/17/2022).
 See 1 Corinthians 3:5–17.
 See Isaiah 32:15; Exek. 36:25–27; 39:29; Joel 3:1–2; cf. Acts 2.