Reconsider Jesus – The Forerunner (Mark 1:4-8)


Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark
A devotional commentary by Michael Spencer
Compiled and Edited by: Michael Bell
Table of Contents

The Forerunner

4 This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. 5 All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 6 His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.

7 John announced: “Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”

Mark 1:4-8 – NLT

So who was John the Baptist? He is certainly one of the most intriguing figures in the entire Bible. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the first century, devotes a large amount of material to John,11 and Acts 19:1-7 indicates that his influence extended far beyond a few converts at the Jordan river.

Many scholars have pointed out that the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist is one of the most historically certain parts of the Gospel story, not only because it is recorded in all four gospels, but because the baptism of Jesus by John would have been an embarrassment to the early Christians, particularly if there were an active “John the Baptist Movement” existing at the same time as early Christianity.12 Yet all the Gospels agree that Jesus’ ministry is inaugurated in a formal sense with his baptism by John. They also agree that this baptism was the time of a special awareness of Jesus’ relationship to his heavenly Father.

Mark relates John to the Old Testament role of the messenger who would precede the Messiah. This was prophesied in Malachi 3:1 and had become a popular expectation at the time of Jesus. The arrival of the messenger meant that centuries of prophetic silence were over and God was once again speaking to His people. The messenger would prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the one who would cleanse and purify the nation.

John comes to his ministry with a full awareness that he is taking up the prophet’s mantle. His dress is similar to the prophet Elijah13 and his lifestyle speaks of sacrifice and withdrawal. His ministry in the desert is significant because the desert is where God has met and purified his people in the past as they prepared to enter the promised land. There is an intentionality about John that proclaims that the prophet of God is once again bringing the message of God to His people at a critical time.

John’s message is simply summarized by Mark. First of all, he is preaching repentance. The Greek word metanoia has been often explained as an “about face” or “change in direction,” but here it is an act of total life reorientation to the great reality of the approaching Kingdom. Nothing about what God is asking of his people in his Kingdom is a minor change of direction or “turning over a new leaf.” This radical life change means making every decision from a Kingdom perspective. Modern Christianity needs to remember what John is preaching when it considers what Jesus asks of his followers.

Converts to Judaism were baptized by other Jews and baptism was not something they would have considered lightly. What John was calling for was a step of real humility for these proud Jews: To be reduced to the same level as a convert, and to come as an outsider, as one who was unclean and unwashed. The way into the Kingdom is a way of humility from the very beginning.

Mark spends very little time on the subject of baptism as compared with any of the other New Testament writers. What he makes plain is that this baptism was for the forgiveness of sins and was a public proclamation of readiness to follow the anointed one. Those baptized must publicly confess their sins and publicly participate in the ritual. Baptism has multiple meanings in the New Testament, but John sees this as a cleansing with water that precedes a cleansing/filling/washing by the most powerful agent of all — God’s Holy Spirit. When John states that “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!” he is verifying that water baptism is never an end in itself, but a pointer. That is, baptism is a picture of a greater, deeper spiritual reality.

Mark says that John’s message was focused on the one who was coming after him. Jesus would be more powerful, and more worthy than John. Most importantly of all, this coming one will baptize with the Holy Spirit. The contrast could not be greater. John is preparing the way of the Lord and knows that the way requires repentance, radical reorientation and a recognition of the identity and worth of the one who is to come. This is a clear map of how we receive Christ today. We turn from sin, orient our life around a new master and recognize him as Lord.

Some scholars have speculated that Jesus may have spent a considerable period of time with John before separating from him to his own ministry. Mark does nothing to help us with this possibility, but I believe it is quite likely.14 There is no reason to believe that Jesus developed his message in a vacuum. It is quite likely that Jesus left home and either joined the Baptist or listened to him frequently. Luke’s story of the family relationship may be one way of hinting at this. How did Jesus come to hear God’s voice definitively? Could it have been under the mentoring of John? Could John’s knowledge of the coming one be a result of his increasing understanding of Jesus? Could it have been possible that after a period of being the “student,” Jesus becomes the “teacher?” Although the biblical text is silent about such matters, it is an intriguing possibility.

On the level of a story, a forerunner focuses our attention. Like a warm-up act, he brings the audience to the point of being ready to listen to the main performer. John only briefly appears on Mark’s stage, but he sets the framework for much of what we will hear from Jesus. Though John will appear later in the story, his main purpose occurs here, to begin playing the melody that Jesus will pick up and write into his own song of life, death and resurrection.

What does John have to say to us? The modern religious person would likely want to put this wild man away as soon as possible, but John’s proclamation does not allow this. His thunderous and clear introduction of Jesus will also not let us take Jesus away from his Old Testament roots and the message that God was sending through the entire Bible. Elijah, the forerunner of John the Baptist, was an unfashionable and uncomfortable prophet in a time when Israel had turned away from God. John appears in our world, standing on the pages of Mark and shouts some uncomfortable words to us. Let go of your sin. Confess your wrongs. Humble yourself to receive forgiveness. Most of all, prepare to receive and follow the one who sends the Holy Spirit to cleanse us inside and out.

—————————————-

Footnotes:

[11] Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, Book 18, chapter 5,2

[12] In textual criticism, a story that is embarrassing to its author is presumed to be true, primarily because an author typically would not want to invent an incident which would embarrass himself, or this case, embarrass the subject around which his story is constructed.

[13] 2 Kings 1:8

[14] See John Meir, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol.2 for a detailed discussion.

Notes from Mike Bell:
1. What questions or thoughts come from your mind from what you have just read?
2. Would you be interested in a paper or Kindle version of the book when it is available? Please email us at michaelspencersnewbook@gmail.com so that we can let you know when it is ready.
3. Find any grammar or spelling errors, phrases that are awkward or difficult to understand? Also send these type of comments to the email address above.

15 thoughts on “Reconsider Jesus – The Forerunner (Mark 1:4-8)

  1. I believe the term is transformed. A picture of molding or stamping a piece of metal in a die or press is used. And the believer is the metal. As a MSE graduate who has studied metallurgy, the forces, deformations, etc involved are complicated and intense (no trivial tasks or efforts).

    Throw that in with Paul’s analogies of long distance road races, grueling wrestling matches, etc you can also see why as well.

    The imagery of re-arranging the mental furniture of men and women is far too simplistic as to what is really going on.

    Like

  2. Well Scriptures do say this about him:

    “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.'”

    So it makes sense he would feature prominently in the icon.

    May you be blessed during this time and grow in grace and in knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

    Like

  3. I so understand the sense of “fitting” into a church. I spent a lot of time looking for this in the early 2000s, including a considerable amount of money going to the Zondervan pastors’ conferences for a few years, to be able to talk to some of the authors who were saying intriguing things. I was hoping to find a place where I fit with what I was coming to believe theologically, but also a group of Christians that wasn’t trying to ignore or change Scripture with regard to certain issues. The prayers and ethos of the Northumbria Community did so much to sustain me, but I wanted a more local expression of something that I couldn’t even completely put words on at the time.

    I’d always intended to remain a Protestant. EO came at me out of left field.

    Dana

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  4. Oh, FIT I get…LOL. Thanks for the clarification. Makes sense.

    I’ve found a place where the pastor is quite similar to me in some ways, and have found others within the church who are also “like-minded” in some theological leanings. Without fellow “allies” in an evangelical setting, I could see how it would be… discouraging.

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  5. It’s relatively easy to get people to mutter the Sinner’s Prayer and move on, but real Evangelism includes far, far more than re-arranging the mental furniture of men and women.

    And, yeah, it’s still pretty urgent, but not like panic-inducing. One does what one can, always looking to increase the measure yet aware that even if you gave it all, it would be entirely inadequate without God’s mercy. There will be forgiveness, but no provision, for the slothful and cowardly.

    Its like everything I ever wanted from paganism or pantheism I found in Orthodoxy

    Like

  6. St. John the Forerunner is a big figure in the Orthodox Church. An icon of him figures prominently on every iconostasis, to the left of Christ.

    Orthodox iconstases are laid out thusly:

    St. Michael — Patron of the Parish — Our Lady — Our Lord — St. John Forerunner — St. Gabriel

    The day of his beheading is a day of strict fasting, one of three total fasting days (no food, no water) on the calendar; Clean Monday, Holy Saturday, and the beheading of St. John.

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  7. “I’m curious why you feel that way.”

    Finding a fit. Walking into a church and feeling at home. As an evangelical Post Evangelical Non Liturgical believer my options are limited. That being said, reasonable happy where I am, but missing fellowship in this Covid-19 world.

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  8. That is why I differentiated between Upper case and lower case. I realise that there are others in other traditions who are evangelical but not “Evangelical”.

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  9. The proclamation of the good news is not peculiar to Evangelicalism, as the word is used today. Recall that “Evangelical” referred to the Lutheran church long before the Methodists and the like. It still is the “E” in “ELCA.”

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  10. Nothing to critique here. Well put.

    Let me just add that I too am fascinated with the figure of John the Baptist. The finest example of recent scholarship on the subject I’ve seen is from Joel Marcus. HIs ‘John the Baptist in History and Theology’, published in 2018 is the culmination of a lifetime of research and teaching on the subject. Go here to investigate further –

    Marcus collects all our sources on John (the NT, Josephus) in one place. He discusses all we can know and what others have thought before providing his own opinions – and speculations (clearly labeled as such). Interestingly he probes the idea that John might have had some relationship with the Essenes. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Not a dull page in it. (See also Marcus’ fine two volume commentary on Mark from Anchor Press.)

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  11. –> “…we are still at our hearts evangelical in the sense that we believe the good news that Jesus brings and desire that others know it too.”

    Totally agree. Even though my “salvation” notions have shifted toward Universalism, I have no doubt that it’s Jesus who saves, who is the only way, etc. etc. and that he’s the good news people need to hear and sense, and I do desire that people would seek him.

    –> “Personally, it is not an easy place to be.”

    I’m curious why you feel that way. To me, this is a much easier and freer spiritual place to be than the pure evangelical “wretched urgency” zone of GOTTA SAVE, GOTTA SAVE, GOTTA SAVE!!!!

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  12. It strikes me that as much as Internet Monk is post Evangelical, we are still at our hearts evangelical in the sense that we believe the good news that Jesus brings and desire that others know it too.

    Personally, it is not an easy place to be.

    Like

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