Mark appropriately begins his Gospel with the word “beginning”. He says, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God)” (v. 1). I want to spend some time unpacking this sentence because it is foundational to everything else I am going to say.
It is not just that this is the first sentence of Mark’s Gospel, and that is why he writes “the beginning”. It is because Mark has set out to write a “gospel”, a good news account of salvation. The good news has to do with Jesus Christ. Jesus is his personal name that means “Savior”. Christ is his prophetic title that means “Messiah” or “Anointed One”.
So, right away Mark confesses that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah. Yes, Mark and others knew that he was the son of Joseph and Mary, but the key here is that he is also the Son of God, and that is why he is able to save.
So, by referring to this message of salvation as the gospel about Jesus Christ, Mark is communicating to his readers that everything they read about in the subsequent chapters is how God sent his Son into the world to save the world from their sins. He did it through Jesus the Christ, the Messiah whom God said he would send into the world all the way back in the book of Genesis, which also means beginning.
Now a beginning is something that takes place before the main content. And right away, Mark begins with John the Baptist. We could say that John is the beginning of the New Testament Gospel. Some would argue that Jesus’ birth is the beginning, but Jesus didn’t start preaching the Good News until John Baptist. He wasn’t revealed as the Messiah until John the Baptist. So, with John’s work the gospel itself began.
And what was his work? To preach and to baptize. Listen to the text: “This is how it is written in the prophet Isaiah. ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way for you. A voice of one calling out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight’” (vv. 2,3).
Then it says, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4).
John was a preacher, first and foremost. He was a herald. And like the heralds of old who cried out announcing the arrival of the king, John’s voice cried out in the wilderness announcing the arrival of the King of Kings.
I like that old English word “crier”. It reminds us that this announcement was meant for all to hear. They didn’t have microphones in that day, so they cried out the message. The word also reminds us that who the crier is, is immaterial. The message is what is important. The message is what we are to hear and pay attention to.
The apostle Paul makes the same point in 1 Corinthians when he says, “My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another “I follow Cephas”, still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1:11-13)
In other words, the people were focused on the messenger more than the message. They were saying, “Well, I’ll only listen to that preacher.” And Paul says, “Who the preacher is, is the least of your concerns. It is the message that he brings. And if he brings “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” then pay attention to what he says, no matter who he is.”
That it was John, the son of Zechariah and Elizbeth, was irrelevant except for what the message said about him and about Jesus.
First, Isaiah says that before the Messiah comes, God will send a forerunner. So that the people could recognize this specific forerunner, Isaiah provides detail. He will come before the Messiah. He will preach in the wilderness. And the content of his preaching will be preparation. Obviously, it will be important that the people listen to what he says.
So, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4).
And it is remarkable how popular his preaching was. He must have been a very good preacher, for Mark writes that “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him” (v. 5). So, you can imagine this steady stream of pilgrims heading out to the desert to “Bethany beyond the Jordan” as John’s Gospel informs us (1:28).
And you can imagine Brother Benjamin having a conversation with his friend, Levi. And Benjamin asks, “Well, what are you doing this afternoon.” And Levi answers, “Me? I’m heading out to the desert east of the Jordan River.” “What in the world are you doing that for?” Benjamin wonders. “It is to hear a preacher. Everyone is talking about him. They are saying that the Messiah is about to come, and that this preacher is telling us how to get ready to receive him. Come with me!” Levi says. And so, the two head out into the desert, and they find a prophet.
Now, we often get caught up in John the Baptist’s clothing and diet. But that is just because we are so far removed from him in time and in culture. There is a lot going on with John’s clothing and his choice of preaching venue that modern Christians miss.
It wouldn’t have been overly strange for the Jewish people to see John clothed in camel’s hair. Camel’s hair was woven into clothing by the poor. So, don’t think of a camel’s hide covering John, but rather a long, loose robe woven of camel’s hair. With this rough robe there naturally went a leather belt to hold it at the waist.
As far as his diet, we shouldn’t think of John eating live locusts, but rather dried or roasted locusts whose wings and legs were torn off and seasoned with salt. Such a diet is still eaten by the poor throughout the world in times of famine.
But this was not some sort of new fashion and diet designed to garner the people’s attention. As if John were trying to copyright his own specific brand and start marketing himself to the general public. No. It had everything to do with the message.
Elijah the prophet wore a long loose robe of camel’s hair. In 2 Kings 1:8 King Ahaziah recognizes Elijah when this prophet is described to him as “a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist. The king said, ‘That was Elijah the Tishbite.’”
God wanted the public to equate John the Baptist with the prophet Elijah. At the end of Malachi (the last book of the Old Testament) God specifically says, “Look! I am going to send Elijah the prophet to you before the great and fearful day of the LORD comes!” (4:5).
So, God specifically wanted the people to see John and think, “That is Elijah. That is the one whom God said would come.” But not because Elijah or John the Baptist were anything special, rather because of what they preached: Repentance! All of Elijah’s ministry can be summarized by the word “repent”—calling the nation of Israel to repentance, calling especially the king to repentance. And God said, “Just before the Savior comes, I am going to send you another Elijah who will preach the same message. This is how you prepare for the Messiah’s coming.”
You see, true repentance is the beginning of the gospel. Remember verse 1: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Well, what does Mark write about immediately following that statement? Repentance! Mark says that the people were baptized by John in the Jordan River “as they confessed their sins” (v. 5). That is how we prepare for Jesus to come to our hearts. It begins with a recognition and acknowledgment that I am a sinner. So, Mark describes those who were accepted for baptism as “confessing their sins.” The word “confessing” states that this open and penitent acknowledgment of sin accompanied every baptism that was performed.
But how did the people come to such a state of confession? It was through John’s preaching.
And, loved ones, this is the way God still works in the human heart today. His chosen means to produce sorrow over sin and a desire for forgiveness is the preaching of the Word. Whether the people went out to hear John for the right reason or not, they ended up hearing about the coming Messiah, and that the only way they would be ready for him was via a cleansing. A cleansing of the soul. That message of repentance and forgiveness produced in the people’s hearts a desire to receive the forgiveness of sins. The reality of which John promptly offered them. His baptism was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 5).
Now, at the risk of getting long-winded here, I feel compelled to point out that the location of John’s ministry was highly symbolic. He preached in the wilderness. He cried out in the desert. Why there? Because that was the status of Jerusalem’s heart at the time of Christ. It was dry, and it was dead. God’s people needed the life-giving water of the Gospel to live. So, John goes to a place in the middle of the desert where there happens to be life. There is some water. And with this water that produces life even in the dry desert, he baptizes the people, and through the forgiveness of sins, he gives them life for their souls.
The word for “forgiveness” that Mark uses is “aphesis”. It is one of the most blessed words in the Bible. It means “sending away”. Says the commentator Lenski, “The sins are taken from the sinner and are sent away so far and in such a way that even God will not find them on the day of judgment: as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12), like a writing blotted out (Is. 43:25), cast into the depths of the sea (Michah 7:19). Can there be sweeter words than these for any poor sinner?” (Lenski, p. 31).
Can there? Only if one is repentant. Only if one loathes the fact that he or she is a sinner. Then these words of sending away our sin become the most precious words of life. And the Savior through whom the forgiveness of the world was obtained, becomes the goal of our life. But if we don’t pay attention to what God’s Word says—if we don’t pay attention to the forerunners that God graciously sends us to prepare us for Christ’s coming, will Jesus ever be the goal?
You say, “Well, Christ has already come at Christmas and I believe he is coming again on the Last Day.” Yes, but he still comes even in our present time. Yes, he still comes even today. He comes in Word and sacrament. He comes every single time the forerunner whom God places into this pulpit preaches repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Let us pay attention to what the forerunner says, especially during this peculiar Christmas season. Let us prepare the way of the Lord so that he finds a straight path into our heart! Amen.