The Ministry of the Forerunner
The Ministry of the Forerunner
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. As we do this, it will become clear that everything about John pointed to Jesus. So as we look at John we should be convicted to be like him, but more than that we should be amazed at the glory of Christ.
I. The Prophecy about John (vv. 2-3)
a. A forerunner to prepare the way
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.
Mark writes, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way….” This comes straight from Malachi 3:1. There the prophet Malachi brings up the theme of the forerunner. That is, that God is going to send a messenger who will arrive before the Messiah. Look at what Malachi said:
“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.
b. The preparatory work of the forerunner
This forerunner is more than just a sign of the coming of the Lord. This forerunner has a specific task. Mark, quoting from Isaiah 40:3, tells us that this forerunner will prepare the way for the Lord. Mark writes, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” This prophecy about the preparatory work of the forerunner is the main theme of verse 2 and 3. Mark uses an interesting analogy from Isaiah to bring this point out.
In the Ancient Near East roads were usually poorly maintained. They did not have the sophisticated technology that we have today. Imagine the how bad some of our roads are around here, and then imagine how bad they would be without asphalt or any modern machinery. This is how the roads were in Isaiah’s time. For this reason, whenever the king planned to take a trip he would send someone ahead to assure that the roads were adequately prepared for his arrival. This is an excellent illustration for the ministry of the forerunner, and we need to see two things in this illustration. First, the forerunner is not preparing the way for just “any-old-king.” Looking at the passage that Mark’s is quoting from it is clear that the forerunner is preparing the way for God (Yahweh):
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 second thing that we need to see from this illustration is that the forerunner was to come and prepare the way spiritually. In fact, back in Malachi this forerunner is compared to Elijah (Mal. 4:5). This is interesting because Elijah’s message was primarily about repentance. The people had turned their hearts from God, and Elijah’s hope was that they would turn back to God (1 Kings 18:37). Similarly, the forerunner will be working to turn the people back to God in preparation for the coming of the Lord.
From these OT prophecies we see that the forerunner is a sign of the coming of the Lord, and that he will spiritually prepare the way for the Lord. As we will see in the next verse, Mark brings up this theme of the forerunner because John was that forerunner. He was sent as sign of the coming of the Lord, and to remove spiritually any spiritual obstacles. In verse four Mark describes John’s ministry to shows us exactly how John accomplished his God-given task.
II. The Ministry of John (v. 4)
Mark tells us that “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The first thing we see about John’s ministry is that he was baptizing (or some translations say John the Baptist). This would have been a very unique ministry during John’s day. Today baptism is a church ordinance, however at that time the church had not yet begun. There were some Old Testament rituals that pointed to a ritual cleansing with water, however the Jews did not practice baptism like we do today. The only baptism that the Jews practiced was proselyte baptism. In other words, if a Gentile wanted to practice the Jewish religion they had to undergo and this baptism as a sign of cleansing. This, along with several other steps, was the only way that a Gentile could participate in Jewish worship.
b. Preaching repentance
In addition to baptizing, John was also preaching (or proclaiming). Specifically, John was preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This was quite an amazing thing that John was doing. John was preaching to the Jews and telling them that they needed to be baptized like a Gentile. We see this more clearly in Luke 3:7-8:
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.
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.
III. The Response to John (v. 5)
a. They came to see John
You can only imagine how the people would have responded to John’s message. No one was teaching or doing anything like John. His message would have been extremely controversially, and so everyone wanted to see him. In verse 5 we see how the people responded to John’s message. Mark tells us that “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him….” Clearly Mark is exaggerating a bit, but the point is clear. Everyone wanted to see John. People came from all the surrounding areas over difficult terrain. There had not been a prophet in the land for centuries and the people were interested in seeing this powerful prophet, and hearing for themselves what John had to say. Some have estimated that up to 300,000 people came out to hear John’s message (I have no idea haw this number was arrived at, but clearly a lot of people went and heard John).
b. They accepted his message
The initial response to John was interest, but what about after the people heard what he had to say? Mark tells us that many of these people “were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” What an amazing thing! The people came out to hear John because they were interested, and then they accepted his message. He told them that because of their sin they were not acting like the people of God. They agreed. He told them that because of their sin they needed to repent. They agreed. He told them that they needed to be baptized just like the Gentiles entering into the Jewish religion. They agreed. Through John’s preaching the people saw the wickedness of their way and confessed their sin. This is an amazing thing, and this is something that we all need to do in our own lives. When we confess our sins we are simply agreeing with God. In the Bible God has revealed to us His holy character through His laws. He has revealed to us what the way of righteousness. When we sin, by our actions, we are telling God that our way is better than His way. But, when we confess our sin we are agreeing with God and admitting that His way is better than our way. This is what the people did. It was the result of John’s ministry as the forerunner.
IV. The Description of John (v. 6)
a. His appearance
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.
All this may seem insignificant, however Mark is making sure that his readers see the similarity between John and Elijah. This description of John is extremely similar to the description of Elijah found in 2 Kings 1:8. Remember, Malachi has already let it be known that the forerunner is going to be like Elijah. Clearly Mark is using this analogy to further prove that John was the forerunner.
b. His diet
Mark also tells us about John’s diet. John “ate locusts and wild honey.” 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.
V. The Message of John (v. 7)
a. A mightier person
John lived out his message, but he always made sure that his message was not about himself. Mark tells us that John “preached, saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.’” Here John is preaching of one who is mightier than he is. This was in response to what we read about in Luke 3:15:
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ…
John’s ministry was so powerful that some of the people thought that he might be the Christ. In response to this John immediately deflected the attention off of himself. John made it very clear that he was not the Christ, and that the Christ would be far mightier than he was. He was just the forerunner, which meant that the Christ would come shortly after him. The people listening to John would not have known this at the time, but we now know that this mightier person was Jesus. So, when John had the chance to bring glorify himself he chose to glorify Jesus instead. And he did this in a very graphic way.
John said that he was not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of this mightier one’s sandal. This was an incredibly graphic picture. In the first century people did not have shoes like we have today. If you were lucky you had a pair of sandals. Additionally, they did not have running water, which meant that bathing was not always an option. So, the feet were not very appealing. In fact, it was common practice that a Jewish slave would do just about anything for his master except take off his sandals. It was too disgusting for even the slaves, but John said that he was not even good enough to do it! In other words, John is admitting that he is not even worthy to be Jesus’ slave. What an amazing admission, and what an amazing challenge to us in our lives. If John, who had this amazing ministry, was not good enough to be Jesus’ slave then how much less worthy are we. Yet, by grace, we are allowed to have a relationship with Jesus. This should be a humbling thought for us all.
b. A mightier ministry
John made sure that the people got this point. Not only did he say that he was not worthy to be Jesus’ slave, but he also made sure the people knew that the ministry of the Christ would be far greater than his ministry. John said to the people, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Here we are reminded that John’s ministry was preparation for Jesus’ ministry. John pointed out to the people their sin, and their need for repentance. Thus, John’s baptism created a readiness in the hearts of it participants. John simply removed all the obstacles from their hearts. John’s baptism was with water, it was just an outward sign. However, the baptism of Jesus would be far greater than this. His baptism was “with the Holy Spirit.” This would have been another amazing claim to John’s audience. Here he is alluding to several Old Testament passages that speak of God putting His Spirit in the hearts of his people. Ezekiel 36:26-27 puts it this way:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
In this passage God promises to put His Spirit in the hearts of His people so that they will be able to obey Him. Do you see the connection? John’s baptism pointed out that the people were unable to follow God, and Jesus’ baptism regenerates the people so that they can follow God. What an amazing truth that demonstrates God’s grace. John’s baptism shows we are all sinners and we cannot follow God on our own. However, Jesus has made provision for us. He has provided His people with His Spirit so that they can follow Him. By this gift we are then able to exercise faith (Ephesians 2:8). Therefore it is by this gift that we are saved, and it is by this gift that we continue to follow Jesus after our conversion.
As we look at the life and ministry of John the Baptist it is clear that it was all about glorifying Jesus. Even though these verses were all about John, it is evident that Jesus is the glorious God and Messiah. This is the point of the passage. It should cause us to be amazed at the glorious nature of Christ. If Christ’s forerunner was this amazing, then how much more amazing is Christ himself?
Additionally, as a note of application, we should be like John in our own lives. John knew how amazing Jesus is and so his aim was to glorify Him in everything he did. We should have the same attitude as John.
 It should also be noted that there may also be an allusion to Ex 23:20 in this quote. (See Watts’ article in the NT uses of the OT, pg. 120).