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John the Baptist

Mark 1:1 -- 8 


Mark’s Gospel is perhaps the most suited for modern America. It is short and condensed; it is full of action; and it leaves to the reader much to be done.

(Mark 1:1-8 NIV) The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. {2} It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"-- {3} "a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'" {4} And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. {5} The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. {6} John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. {7} And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. {8} I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Lessons from John the Baptist

The person and life of John the Baptist contain rich lessons for us. Because we have such a short set of passages concerning his life – and because he is such a fulfillment of prophecy – we tend to read past his own life. But there are things worth our time here.

Written in the prophet

What distracts most readers – especially those with footnotes in their Bibles – is that this passage is heavily cross-referenced to the Old Testament. Many modern Christians have a fascination with prophecy, especially Revelation. But there are some older lessons here too:

  • Do we accord the Scripture its proper place of honor in our lives? John was obedient to the prophecies concerning his role. The world would look at his actions as being those of great sacrifice – a sacrifice which did not result in his own glory, but the glory of Christ. Do we as Christians take the Scripture seriously? Do we listen when it speaks? Or is it something to be carried to church on Sunday only? Can you recall a time recently when the Scripture convicted you?
  • Speaking of prophecy: how many of us are thrilled to hear of events in Israel that bear out our particular interpretation of Revelation – but are not so disposed to hear the prophets proclaiming the day of wrath to come? If we believe what is written in the prophets, should we not act like it? Should not our lives be filled with repentance and good works?
Character of the messenger

Each of us, like it or not, is an ambassador of Christ. We need to see the character of this messenger who was sent before our Lord. Why? Because we may be the one “sent before the Lord” to someone else. Our lives may be the spark which some evangelist uses to bring out the fire of the Spirit.

  • It is not clear to modern readers, but those of this time would have understood it. John, in the description of his clothing and certainly in his chosen locale, is rejecting materialism. Materialism is so common in our day that many Christians take it as obvious that they must have the new Mercedes (or whatever). Indeed, with the payments being so high, they consider themselves poor as a result. This is not the example before us.
  • This man’s life is one of sacrifice for the kingdom of God. Is that something that could be said of us? Have you ever made the conscious decision to forego some pleasure so that others might benefit?
  • The crowds saw the life of the man in the desert. They saw a man who was, as we say today, “walking the walk, not just talking the talk.” They believed his message because the man and the message were one. Can we say that?

One of my students gave me the key to understanding how we apply this to our lives. She spoke of Thomas à Kempis, a monk (the author of The Imitation of Christ), saying, “I just can’t understand being a monk. What good could it be?” Thomas provides the answer himself:

IF YOU wish peace and concord with others, you must learn to break your will in many things. To live in monasteries or religious communities, to remain there without complaint, and to persevere faithfully till death is no small matter. Blessed indeed is he who there lives a good life and there ends his days in happiness.

If you would persevere in seeking perfection, you must consider yourself a pilgrim, an exile on earth. If you would become a religious, you must be content to seem a fool for the sake of Christ. Habit and tonsure change a man but little; it is the change of life, the complete mortification of passions that endow a true religious.

He who seeks anything but God alone and the salvation of his soul will find only trouble and grief, and he who does not try to become the least, the servant of all, cannot remain at peace for long.

You have come to serve, not to rule. You must understand, too, that you have been called to suffer and to work, not to idle and gossip away your time. Here men are tried as gold in a furnace. Here no man can remain unless he desires with all his heart to humble himself before God.

The ascetic life is not an easy one. But consider: being a fool for Christ? Seeking God and salvation? Service, suffering and work, not idleness and gossip? Humility? Are these not virtues worthy of emulation?

Messenger, not message

As I told my little leaguers, “keep your eye on the ball.” We need to remember that we are the messengers, the ambassadors of reconciliation – but it is Jesus Christ who is the message.

·         “If I be lifted up” – if we keep him as the core, the focus and the soul of our lives, lifting him up in our words and actions, then others will see him. They will not be concerned with our imperfections (which are soon enough discovered.) They will see Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God – and then the choice must be made.

·         Who is the message? The Christ. The one who came to be the living sacrifice for our sins. That’s the Gospel, which means “good news.”

·         Who is the message? The Son of God. The one who is the bridge between us and God.

Preparing the way – for others, in the church

John the Baptist had one purpose: to prepare the way. We too are called to “prepare the way” – for others in the church.

Voice in the wilderness

The phrase has passed into the English language as a figure of speech meaning one who is not listened to. But this is not the case; it really means one who is speaking that which is uncomfortable to hear. Are you willing to be such a voice?

  • Consider, for the moment, church discipline. It is an unpopular thing; no one wants to be the one who confronts another with sin. Indeed, the church as a whole is unwilling to apply it in our day. It is “uncomfortable.” But does that make it unnecessary?
  • Think also of your own comfort zone. Who is the person who will go up to the man wearing the leather jacket with the Harley-Davidson logo and welcome him to the church? If not you, then who? Somebody has to be first.
Baptism of the Holy Spirit

In searching for how this applies to us in the church, I came across two passages which struck me. In each we see a way in which the Holy Spirit tends to the church:

  • If we are genuinely baptized in the Holy Spirit, we will be careful to keep his laws.[1] John’s life modeled that for us. Do our lives model that for others?
  • If we are genuinely baptized in the Holy Spirit, we will know that we belong to “one body”[2]. Do we make every effort to preserve the unity of the church.

Preparing the way in our daily lives

If Christ genuinely is to live in my live, I need to “prepare the way.” How do I do that? John tells us here:


In a parallel passage[3] John warns his hearers to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Repentance is not just saying you’re sorry; it’s a change in the way you conduct your life. Many of us are very good at driving down the wrong road and repeating, “Yep – this is the wrong road, all right. I sure am sorry to be on the wrong road.” What kind of fruit comes from repentance? John gives us two examples:

  • First, he tells us, is sharing with the poor. He phrases this in a way foreign to modern Christians. He tells us that if you have two coats, and your neighbor has none, you should give him one of them. That strikes us as odd in a check and credit card society, but there is a lesson there. Repentance brings you around to the point of sharing what you already have. Most of us are willing to share the excess. Few of us are willing to share what we’ve already possessed.
  • The second fruit is that of personal honesty. In our dealings with all others we are to be rigorously honest. There is no sense of get along and go along in the Gospel.

Because of the split between Protestant and Catholic, the evangelical churches do not emphasize (often do not even teach) the need for confession. But from the earliest days of the church confession has been a requirement. Why?

  • It is a very important way of confessing Christ before men – and that is a requirement of all Christians.[4] By making your confession public, you make it clear that you do so in Godly fear – and so uphold your Lord as being indeed the Son of God.
  • It is essential as part of clearing out the barrier of sin between you and your Lord. Indeed, James tells us[5] that it is prerequisite to divine healing.
  • It is also a source of unity in the church. If we confess to one another, then we are implicitly calling on one another for help.
Straight Paths

Have you ever considered yourself as needing to clear the path between you and Christ? Repentance and confession are part of that. But we can also look at “straight paths” as representing the way we should live our lives. Do you “walk the straight and narrow?” That phrase is much despised, but our Lord honors those who walk in straight paths. Consider the virtues of “straightness”:

  • Do people take you at your word – or do they have to ask, “What did he really mean by that?” Which kind of person do you want to work with?
  • Can people count on you to do the right thing without being asked or reminded? Are they sure that you wouldn’t cheat them?
  • Does your path point straight – to Jesus?

[1] Ezekiel 36:27

[2] 1 Corinthians 12:13

[3] Luke 3:8

[4] See Matthew 10:32-33

[5] James 5:14-16

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