Pastor David B. Curtis


John the Baptizer

Mark 1:2-8

Delivered 10/02/2005

We are just beginning a study of the gospel of Mark. Last week we did an introduction to the book, and we also looked at verse 1, which I said was most likely the title of the book. Who wrote this book? Mark. Where did he get his information since he was not a first hand witness of the life of Christ? Peter. What is unique about this book? It was the first gospel written and it is the most translated book of the Bible. Who was Mark writing to? Gentiles at Rome.

Mark 1:1 (NASB) The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark wants his readers to understand from the very beginning that Jesus Christ is God.

Having stated that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Mark draws upon several witnesses as to the identity of Christ and the purpose of His coming. The first witness is the witness of the Old Testament. He says:


He is going back to the Old Testament Scriptures and reminding us that there would be a messenger, and the messenger would announce the coming of the Messiah.

"As it is written" - The phrase stresses that the words were from God Himself. "It is written" establishes it as God's truth and means written with God's authority and by God through His messengers. The use of the passive to avoid using the sacred name of God was common practice among the Jews. Rather than say, "God wrote," they would say, "It is written."

"As it is written in Isaiah the prophet" - this is interesting because he quotes from Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40, but he says, "It is written in Isaiah the prophet." It is very common (in fact, it is done multiple times in all the Gospels) that when a writer would cite multiple Old Testament passages, he would just reference it with one citation.

What is important about this is Jesus is the Person who was talked about in the Law and the Prophets. In other words, Jesus is not someone who just appeared on the scene and gathered a following, and it went from there. This is the fulfillment of God's plan that He has been talking about since Genesis 3:15. After Jesus was resurrected and was walking with His disciples down the road of Emmaus, He said to them, "You should have known what was going to happen. It was recorded in the Law and the Prophets." That is exactly where Mark starts. He says, "This is the One who was talked about in the Law and the Prophets."

"Behold I send My messenger "-

Malachi 3:1 (NASB) "Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear 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.

Who is Malachi referring to as the messenger? The coming messenger that Malachi speaks of is Elijah:

Malachi 4:5 (NASB) "Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.

So the prophecy in Malachi speaks of Elijah, but Mark relates it to John the Baptist:

Mark 1:4 (NASB) John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

There is nothing more distinctly affirmed in the New Testament than the identity of John the Baptist as the Elijah of Malachi:

Matthew 17:10-13 (NASB) And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" 11 And He answered and said, "Elijah is coming and will restore all things; 12 but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." 13 Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.

The disciples knew the prophecy about Elijah; apparently they thought it would be fulfilled physically. It was actually, literally fulfilled, but it was not physically fulfilled. This is an important interpretive principle; something can be fulfilled literally and spiritually, but not physically. John came in the Spirit of Elijah. Speaking to Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, the angel said:

Luke 1:17 (NASB) "And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

The Jews expected the reappearance of the literal Elijah, and John replies to that mistaken notion in:

John 1:21 (NASB) And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said^, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No."

Jesus tells them: If you want to understand the second coming of Elijah, you've got to look at the spiritual.

Matthew 11:13-14 (NASB) "For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 "And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come.

So we see that John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of Elijah. As I said earlier, this is an important interpretive principle; something can be fulfilled literally and spiritually, but not physically. I believe we need to apply this principle to the eschatological texts of the New Testament. When you read 2 Peter 3 about the heavens melting and the earth being burned up and all that. If that is physical, none of us has any arguments as to whether that has happened. The earth is not toast. But if these are physical words describing spiritual realities, then it's going to change our paradigms. Jesus said He was going to come in His disciples life time. Was He mistaken? If these eschatological texts are understood spiritually, then the time frames don't have to be explained away. Jesus meant exactly what He said. If we say these men were mistaken on the time references, then we are, in fact, questioning inspiration.


This verse is a quotation from:

Isaiah 40:3 (NASB) A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

It was very common in the first century that when a king was going somewhere to visit, if he was coming to your town, he would be preceded by a herald or a messenger. That messenger would say, "Prepare the way. Make straight the path." That meant the king was coming. The roads were so poor that immediately that town would have to get busy and repair the road so that the king could travel through. That is the imagery that's used here with John the Baptist as the messenger in effect says, "The King is right behind me, so get your road straight. Get your path prepared. He is coming."

One of the things in verse 3 that I want to highlight is that there are two significant names for God that are attached to Jesus. I think that is very important. If you were to read Isaiah 40:3 in the Hebrew language that Isaiah was written in, it would read like this: "Make ready the way of Yahweh. Make Elohim's paths straight." Now, the significance of that is there's no question that what Mark is saying is that Jesus is Yahweh of the Old Testament. Jesus is Elohim of the Old Testament. Those names for God are now being attached to Jesus to say: "This is that God in the flesh." Yahweh was the covenant-making, covenant-keeping God. It is the God who entered into the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is the God who entered into the covenant with Moses with the Law. This was the personal God of Israel. This was their intimate, personal God. Elohim is the God of Genesis 1, the Creator God of the universe.

We are just three verses into this book of Mark, and already he has called Jesus the Savior and the Christ. He has called him Yahweh, Elohim, and a member of the Trinity; He is the Son of God. Five times in three verses! There is no question that Mark is establishing this is God in the flesh.

What should we immediately learn from Mark's introduction to the Gospel of the New Covenant? Precisely this - that the Biblical record is one story from beginning to end. The whole of the Old Covenant prophetic evidence would point us to this announcement of the ever glorious news. Jesus Christ has come unto His own. Yet, of all the Old Covenant prophets, John is the first to actually see the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Mark 1:4 (NASB) John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John - The original name is Yehochanan, compounded of Yehovah chanan, the grace or mercy of Jehovah: a most proper and significant name for the forerunner of the God of ALL GRACE. It was John's business to proclaim the Gospel of the grace of God, and to point out that Lamb or sacrifice of God, which takes away the sin of the world.

He is called "the Baptist," because the key part of his ministry was baptizing people. Those who came to John and heeded his message were baptized by him. Thus he was given the title "John the Baptist."

John the Baptist was preaching a message of repentance and baptizing people as they identified with repentance and confession of their sin. Repentance means: "to change your mind," but it is really more than that. It is to change your mind and to go a different direction.

John was preaching "in the wilderness " - The idea that this was happening in the wilderness is very significant, because throughout the life of the Hebrew people, significant things happened for them in the wilderness. Perhaps the one most relevant to what Mark is talking about here is remembering that when the nation of Israel was ready to enter into the Promised Land, they had to cross the Jordan and go into the land of promise. But the spies came back and said that the giants were too big; we can't take these guys. They did not have the faith to believe, so that entire generation had to die in the wilderness, and God raised up another generation who believed in Him and trusted Him.

The full import of the wilderness can be gleaned from 295 references to it in the Bible. What should immediately come to mind is Moses and the wilderness experience. The new revelation of God in Jesus, like the old, was to be heralded by a wilderness experience, which would precede entry into the Promised Land. Moses, as we will recall, is followed by Joshua; here, too, an understanding of the name "Jesus" reveals how He is seen tied into existing history: Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua or Joshua.

Under the leadership of Joshua, they crossed through the Jordan River, went into Jericho and conquered the land of promise. Now years have passed, and John is calling them back out to the same wilderness by the Jordan as a way of saying, "We have got to start over. We need to go back out into the wilderness, because our lives and our religious world have become so corrupted and so off track that we really need to go all the way back to the wilderness. We need to repent of that sin and we need to start over." Baptism in the Jordan, the very river they passed through to enter into the land of promise, was all symbolic of this idea that it was a time for starting over. It was symbolizing: The Messiah is coming, and we need to turn back to God, we need a new fresh start. We need to prepare our hearts to listen to the Messiah and to follow Him.

John was no modern day fluff preacher- notice what he said to the religious leaders of his day:

Matthew 3:7 (NASB) But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

John was telling it like it was. He dealt with issues other preachers were only dancing around. And in a day when people soft-pedal the truth, it is exceedingly refreshing to find a man who stands for something and will tell you exactly what he believes. John was such a man.

Mark 1:5 (NASB) And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

"All the country" - This is a generalization and means a great proportion of them so that it could almost be seen as all. There was a huge revival movement. This is confirmed by Josephus, the Jewish historian, when he says: "Many flocked to him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words...."

In order to understand the significance of what was happening, it is important to picture this tremendous scene. Some commentators estimate that there could have been between 200,000 and 500,000 people who participated in John's ministry in this way. Mark is not describing the appearance of a half dozen people who followed John. This prophet came on the scene in such a striking way that after the Spirit of God had prepared the people's hearts, the whole nation recognized John as a prophet, and the leaders even feared him after his death because of the people's high regard for him as a prophet.

You have to understand, too, that the trip from Jerusalem to the Jordan River was not just a little hike. It was 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Jordan, and it was a 4,000 foot drop. Imagine a 20-mile, 4,000 foot drop trip down to the river. As hard as that was, the trip back was doubly hard. This mass of people was making this incredible journey to identify with the message of John the Baptist as he prepared the way for the coming of the Christ.

Think of this! People walking 20 miles and more to hear a man preach.! And it was not a one-time event. The use of the imperfect tense indicates that they were continually going down to hear John and to be baptized.

This doesn't coincide with most modern church-growth experts. You don't begin a ministry out in the wilderness if you expect it to grow. You go where people are, and you say and do things that will attract them to your ministry. You have a "seeker's service" with contemporary music. And you advertise in the paper and on the radio. You form a welcoming committee. And you follow up with a visitation team.

Why were all these people going out to hear John? The last words of the Old Testament, spoken nearly 400 years before John's arrival, announced his entrance and mission. This prophecy, along with that given through Isaiah, set forth the foundation of John the Baptist coming to prepare the way of the Lord. Israel had been without the voice of a prophet for four centuries and into that barrenness, Malachi's words echoed: "Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet...." The coming of Elijah was an event eagerly anticipated by the Jews in 1st century A.D., an event which would restore prophecy and bring them hope. The voice of prophecy had been silent for four hundred years and they saw Elijah as the exemplar of the prophets. They were in constant anticipation of his coming and looked for him in any great prophetic figure who arose:

John 1:21 (NASB) And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said^, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No."

Even today at the Passover, the Jews leave an empty seat for Elijah in anticipation of his coming. For them he has still not come; for when he came, they passed him by.

Mark relates John to the Old Testament role of the messenger who would precede the Messiah. The arrival of the messenger meant that the 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. This is why they walked 20 miles to hear him.

"And they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River" - The first references to baptism in the New Testament are in connection with the ministry of John the Baptist. John practiced baptism to such an extent that he gained the title, "the Baptist."

We must understand that water baptism wasn't something new. It should be apparent that John the Baptizer didn't just pop onto the Jewish scene in A.D. 25 and say something like, "Folks, I'm starting something totally new today that you have never seen before. It is called 'baptism' and here is how it goes...." The very least we must admit is that baptism was familiar enough to the Jewish people of John's day that it didn't provoke any challengers in regard to its mode.

John 1:25-27 (NASB) And they asked him, and said to him, "Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" 26 John answered them saying, "I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. 27 "It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie."

The words of verse 25 imply rather strongly that the Jews expected the Messiah or one of His precursors to "baptize" the Jewish people. They didn't say, "What is baptism?" What they said was, "Why are you baptizing?"

As we learn about the Jewish Mikvah, we realize that water baptism was not something that John invented. A 1984 study by Bryant G. Wood of the University of Toronto says: "John the Baptist's ministry was to Jews. This fact is surely of major significance in any attempt to understand John's baptism. No person seeking to influence Jews in any matter concerning religion would introduce something entirely new. If he could not support his ideas either from Scripture or from the sayings of recognized rabbis, he could not expect a hearing. We have only to examine the rabbinic sayings or the Mishnah to appreciate how much stress was laid by Jews on the continuity of tradition. We may therefore reasonably conclude that John's baptism was not something new. It was something that grew out of Jewish ritual immersion in mikvaot... "

For Biblical evidence that John's baptism was considered to be one of the Jewish "purifications," just consider:

John 3:23-26 (NASB) And John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and they were coming and were being baptized. 24 For John had not yet been thrown into prison. 25 There arose therefore a discussion on the part of John's disciples with a Jew about purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have borne witness, behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him."

Verse 25 says, "There arose therefore a discussion on the part of John's disciples with a Jew about purification ." The next two verses tell us they were actually discussing the difference between John's and Jesus' baptisms. John calls his and Jesus' baptisms "purification," which is the Greek word katharismos. There are only seven New Testament verses which use this same form of the Greek word: (Mark 1:44; Luke 2:22; 5:14; John 2:6; 3:25; Heb. 1:3; 2 Pet. 1:9). All the occurrences of katharismos in the Gospels refer to Jewish purifications. The implication is that John's and Jesus' baptisms were considered to be part of the Jewish purifications, implying that Christian baptism was based on John's baptism, which was a purification ritual. The physical ritual itself was not new at all. Only the purpose and meaning were new.

Jewish people had to undergo ritual immersion before entering the temple for any purpose. There were signs posted at the entrances to the temple warning people not to enter unclean. A severe penalty was imposed on violators. (See Josephus Ant. 12:145; Wars 4:205).

So, baptism wasn't anything new. The Jews were very familiar with water baptism as a symbol of purification. They could not enter the temple without first being purified.

Mark 1:6 (NASB) And John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey.

Why does Mark tell us about John's clothes? What is the significance of this? One commentator writes: "This was not just a wild man living in the caves dressed like this; there was a reason he was dressed this way. The religious leaders of his time dressed in very expensive and very impressive garments. Not only did he call the people out to the wilderness, but even his dress was a way of saying, 'I am rejecting that religious establishment. I am rejecting what that has become.' It was a way of setting himself apart from that and saying, 'This is all going to be completely different. We are starting over here.'" I don't think that was Mark's intention in talking about John's clothes.

Another commentator writes: "Again, it is symbolic. But what does it symbolize? Well, you cannot wear anything more fundamental in the way of clothing, or eat a more basic diet, than John did. In other words, it is representative of his ministry - one of simple beginnings. It is not the end; it is the beginning."

I think that both of these commentators are missing the boat here. This description about the dress and diet of John the Baptist is intended primarily to indicate clearly the identity of John as Elijah.

Elijah's ministry to Ahaziah is recorded in 2 Kings 1. The king was ill following an injury and decided to inquire from the false gods if he was going to recover from his illness. But Elijah, the prophet of God, intercepted his message:

2 Kings 1:3-4 (NASB) But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, "Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and say to them, 'Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?' 4 "Now therefore thus says the LORD, 'You shall not come down from the bed where you have gone up, but you shall surely die.'" Then Elijah departed.

After Ahaziah was told that he would die, the king asked for a description of the man who gave the message regarding death:

2 Kings 1:8 (NASB) And they answered him, "He was a hairy man with a leather girdle bound about his loins." And he said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite."

Since the prophet has a hairy garment bound with a leather girdle about the waist, the king immediately recognizes this as the dress of the prophet Elijah. So when Mark describes the dress of John, he identifies him as the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of Elijah. This is very important. Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, has come!

Mark 1:7 (NASB) And he was preaching, and saying, "After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals.

John didn't want the crowd to follow him instead of Jesus. He was determined not to let that happen. He was telling them, "I am not the Christ. There is One coming after me who is much greater."

"I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals" - This idea of untying the sandals is very important to understand. It was very common in the first century for masters to have their disciples untie their sandals. It was agreed among disciples that they must be willing to do absolutely anything the master asked of them-except untie their sandals.

Rabbi Joshua B. Levi is quoted as saying: "All services which a slave does for his master a pupil should do for his teacher, with the exception of undoing his shoes." So by his words John declares that compared with the Coming One, he is lower than the lowest servant, or even a Gentile slave. He is as nothing before Him, not even fit to perform that lowliest and most despised of tasks, the unfastening of His shoes.

Mark 1:8 (NASB) "I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

This verse shows us that there is a difference between symbolic baptism and the real baptism. When we speak of baptism, we must remember that we are talking about more than a simple rite that people undergo. This rite of water baptism is but a symbol of something else, and it is this "something else" which constitutes the real meaning of baptism, the reality behind baptism. John has tied together symbol and reality.

He is in effect saying: "I baptized you with water and this is a symbolic cleansing, but He is going to baptize you with His Spirit, meaning He is the one who is actually going to transform you. He is going to radically cleanse you. He is going to redeem you. He is going to do what we can only symbolize with this water."

"He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit "- The baptism of the Holy Spirit is how we become members of the spiritual body of Christ:

1 Corinthians 12:13 (NASB) For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

How did we get into the Church, the body of Christ? We were not born into it as infants; the Body of Christ does not consist of everybody in the world, only certain individuals are in it. We are placed in the body by the baptism with the Holy Spirit.

The baptism of the Spirit began at Pentecost:

Acts 11:15-16 (NASB) "And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning. 16 "And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, 'John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'

Peter identifies the date of the baptizing with the Holy Spirit at its inception as Pentecost. This is the first time the baptism with the Holy Spirit takes place. The baptism of the Holy Spirit occurred historically at Pentecost. Since we weren't there at Pentecost, when are you and I baptized by the Holy Spirit?

Acts 11:15-17 (NASB) "And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning. 16 "And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, 'John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' 17 "If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?"

Peter is preaching the Gospel to Cornelius. As he preaches, Cornelius believes, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him as he had upon the 120 at the beginning. The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the 120 at the beginning was the fulfillment of the baptism of the Spirit. I conclude, then, that what is happening to Cornelius here is also the baptism by the Holy Spirit. So I think it is safe to say that a believer is baptized by the Holy Spirit at the moment of his conversion; when he trusts in Christ. That is why there is no command in Scripture to be baptized by the Holy Spirit. There is no exhortation to receive the Holy Spirit- all believers already have Him.

In the nine verses in the New Testament that speak of the baptism by the Holy Spirit, none of them ever command us to seek it. What is the inference here? All believers have it. The baptism by the Holy Spirit is positional work of God; at faith we are placed into the body of Christ, and we can never lose that status. We are exhorted to be controlled with the Spirit, and to walk by the Spirit, but never to be baptized.

So, the baptism by the Holy Spirit is the work of Jesus Christ in putting believers into the church through the agency of the Holy Spirit. It happens at salvation.

So John is pointing them to Christ, he is telling them that Jesus is the promised Messiah who will take away man's sin:

John 1:29 (NASB) The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"

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