Speaking of Jesus: John the Baptist

Read: Mark 1:7-8

And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7,8 RSV)

In the Gospel According to Mark, we meet a number of persons who speak about Jesus, who give their assessment of who He is. The first of these is John the Baptist. Here’s what he says: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The Man

Now to grasp the significance of this, let’s ask first who John the Baptist was. We know a good deal about this man. He was born in about 5 b.c. of godly Jewish parents, both of whom were in the priestly line in Israel. He grew up in the hill country of Judea.

The circumstances of his birth were unusual. When his father Zechariah was performing his priestly duties in the temple in Jerusalem, an angel appeared to him and promised that he, though of advanced age, would father a son. He was to name the boy John and was to bring him up as a Nazarite, like the Old Testament greats, Samson and Samuel. Zechariah was told that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth and would prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the Lord.

The first thing of note about John in the Gospel According to Mark is that he was a man of the wilderness. He apparently spent his early years in seclusion out in the desert near his home, west of the Dead Sea. He began to be noticed by others in about a.d. 26. It was during one of Israel’s sabbatical years when people had been relieved of labor in the fields and had leisure for other things. John began to preach in the wilderness by the Jordan River. He must have been a striking figure, clothed with camel’s hair, wearing a leather girdle around his waist. He lived simply—on the locusts he gathered in the wilderness places and on wild honey.

John reminded people instantly of the great Old Testament prophet Elijah. He too had been a man who roamed the desert. He too had scorned the luxury and corruption of the rich and the powerful. He came to his contemporaries out of nowhere, fresh from communion with the living God.

The people of God knew from their history about the wilderness. It was there that God had guided and provided for them after their miraculous escape from Egypt. Prophets like Hosea, Amos and Isaiah often spoke of that wilderness period as the time of Israel’s true sonship to God. And when they called the people in their generation to repent, they called them back to this beginning of God’s history with His people. It was a calling to return to the wilderness, to come back to God and the close relationship they had known with Him there.

The Message

That’s why it was so significant to the people of John’s day that he haunted the desert places and preached in the wilderness. His message too was a clear, poignant, powerful call to repentance. He was summoning the people back to God, to a new start in their relationship to Him. They were to recognize again their dependence on the Lord of heaven and earth. They were to exchange pride for humility. They were to acknowledge their wanderings and confess their sins. They were to flee from the wrath to come. “Repent! Repent! Repent!” was the burden of John’s message.

A new feature in this was his calling of the people to be baptized. The people of Israel had known about water baptism. It was a rite used to receive proselytes into the community of faith. We have learned from the Qumran discoveries that religious communities within Israel also used water baptism as the rite of initiation. But here was something being recommended for all the people of God. John’s insistence upon baptism was a prophetic sign, so singular and striking to his generation that he became known simply as John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. What a spectacle he must have been, standing in the midst of the waters of the Jordan, baptizing people one after another as they confessed their sins.

This man made an enormous impression on his generation. Though he stayed in the wilderness and preached by the Jordan, people came to him from everywhere, not only country folk from the surrounding area of Judea but multitudes from Jerusalem also, including the religious leaders of his day. For almost 400 years no prophet had appeared in Israel, but the people who heard John the Baptizer knew that he came with an authentic word from God. He was the man of the hour. His bold preaching was the most exciting thing that had happened in Israel for a long time.

This gave his words about Jesus special significance. John was regarded—like no one in memory—as a man who spoke from God to whom the word of the Lord had come. He described himself in Old Testament words from Isaiah, Malachi and Exodus as a “messenger” from God, “a voice crying in the wilderness, `Prepare the way of the Lord.’” Famous and influential though he became, John thus refused to call attention to himself. He saw himself as a witness, a finger pointing, a voice proclaiming someone else. The man of whom he spoke was the son of his mother’s cousin, Jesus, from little Nazareth. “After me,” thundered John, “comes he who is mightier than I.”

Everything about the Baptizer’s ministry bore witness to a more than human power. How did he attract people from villages and hamlets and crowded cities to come out to him in the desert? Whence the magnetism that drew people to his side and made them willing to accept baptism at his hand? Whence the awe of him awakened in the hearts of learned religious teachers and powerful rulers? No one had shaken a culture to its foundations as John had in his meteoric rise to eminence. But he discounts all that. He points away from himself to someone mightier than he.

But he goes further. “I am not worthy,” he announced, “to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” That, as you know, was a very menial service. It was something that no student or disciple was expected to do, even for a revered rabbi. Only a slave would stoop down and untie someone’s sandals. But John says, “I’m not worthy to do that for the One who is coming after me.” In other words, “He is so vastly superior to me that it would be a great honor for me to perform for Him the service of a slave.”

Imagine the effect of that on his hearers! Everyone regarded John as a holy man. He lived above reproach, loving righteousness, hating evil, walking single-mindedly in the will of God. His contemporaries saw him as a moral and spiritual giant. But John refused to bask in their admiration or to cultivate a personal following. “Look at Jesus,” he said; “He is supremely worthy.”

The message was the same when John compared his work with that of the One who was to follow him. “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John was doing something in the natural order; Jesus would perform a work in the realm of the Spirit. John was doing what an ordinary man could do; Jesus’ work would be miraculous, an inbreaking of heavenly power. John could apply the water that was an outward sign of God’s cleansing; Jesus would cleanse peoples’ hearts and make them new with the gift of God’s own Spirit.

So it was that John bore witness to Jesus’ true identity. John, viewed by many as the greatest man of his generation, says “Here is someone far greater than I.” John, the holiest of men, declares himself unworthy to kneel before Jesus. John, the agent of the Most High, points to One who comes to do God’s work on the earth. John was preparing Jesus’ way and telling the world that in Him, Jesus, God had come to visit His people. John was the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Let the hills be leveled and the valleys raised. Let the rough places be made plain. Let there be in the midst of the wilderness, and more profoundly in the hearts of people, a way prepared, a highway for the King!

What do you think of John’s witness? Was he in your mind a true prophet of the Lord? Was he in the succession of Elijah? Isaiah? Jeremiah and the rest? Did he speak fearlessly the word of the Lord? I believe he did. And that’s one of the reasons I believe that Jesus is the incomparably mighty One, the One uniquely worthy, the One who gives the Holy Spirit, the Lord Himself from heaven.

The Motive

Why, do you suppose, did John bear this kind of witness? He had nothing to gain from it. In fact, this kind of preaching eventually led to his imprisonment and execution. He could have had the world at his feet, it seemed. But he gave it all away by pointing to someone else, a slightly younger man, a relative. Why?

He must have felt a constraining call of God to do this. The word of the Lord must have been for him, as it was for Jeremiah, a “fire in his bones” so that he couldn’t stop proclaiming it even if he had wanted to.

Yes, and he must have believed passionately that Jesus was indeed Israel’s promised Messiah, that He was the everlasting word made flesh, the Lord who would visit His people, bringing salvation.

But John proclaimed this faith and preached this word with one consuming end in view: to lead all those whom he addressed to repentance.

John had ventured his entire life on this conviction: in Jesus, God was about to do a new thing. In Jesus, the kingly rule of God was about to break into human history in an unprecedented way. John was standing on the threshold of the most momentous event in the history of the world. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was coming to save and to rule. And the people, all of them, needed to be prepared.

There is no way to prepare the Lord’s way, to open our hearts to His reign, apart from repentance. It’s our sin that blocks the way, our rebellion that impedes His coming, our pride that leaves no room for Him. So John calls all his hearers to repent. As the other gospel writers tell us, he makes that call explicit for particular groups of people. “Bear fruits that befit repentance,” he said. “Don’t simply confess your sins and receive baptism but turn from them to God and begin a new life.” If you have two coats, he says, then share with the person who has none. If you have food enough and to spare, give some to the hungry. If you’re a tax collector, then collect no more than is appointed you. No more heartless gouging of the poor, no more greed and extortion. If you’re a soldier, he says, “rob no one by violence or by false accusation and be content with your wages.”

Maybe you don’t fit exactly into one of those categories, but whatever your situation, John the Baptizer has a word for you. Whatever breaks God’s law and grieves His heart, whatever destroys your integrity or wounds other people, hate it. Turn from it, for the kingdom of God draws near. He comes in judgment. He comes in forgiveness. Repent today and welcome Him, Jesus, as your Savior and your king. And you will discover this very day that He is still the One who gives new life, who gives the Holy Spirit to those who call upon Him. God bless you.

About the Author

Dr. William C. Brownson is the President Emeritus of Words of Hope. Dr. Brownson has served Reformed churches in Lodi, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Preaching at Western Theological Seminary, a position he occupied for ten years before serving at Words of Hope. In addition to a widespread speaking ministry in churches, on university campuses and at conferences, Dr. Brownson has written extensively for the Church Herald, other Christian periodicals, and he has authored many books.