Mark 1:1-8

Preaching of John the Baptist
(Mark 1:1-8)

INTRODUCTION

Mark the Evangelist starts the gospel of Jesus Christ affirming from the very beginning that Jesus came as the Son of God. He proves the divinity of Jesus starting with witnessing of John the Baptist. Isaiah and Malachi had prophesied on the coming of John as the messenger of the Lord to prepare the way for the Messiah. He prepared many people from Judea and Jerusalem to receive the Savior by renewing their lives. They confessed their sins and received baptism from John as sign of their spiritual renewal.

Bible Text

(Mark 1:1) The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [the Son of God].

The Preaching of John the Baptist.

(2) As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. (3) A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” (4) John [the] Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (5) People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. (6) John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. (7) And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. (8) I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.”

 Interpretation

(Mark 1:1) The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [the Son of God].

Mark started the gospel with the first verse as a title indicating that he was writing the Good News of Jesus who was the Messiah and Son of God. This gives the readers an idea on what to expect and what his conclusion would be. He then started the gospel with three events that were preparations for the ministry of Jesus:
1. The preaching of John the Baptist to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. (Mark 1:2-8).
2. The baptism of Jesus with the extraordinary manifestation of the Most Holy Trinity and confirmation that Jesus was the Christ. (Mark 1:9-11).
3. The temptation of Jesus Christ by Satan in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13).

[the Son of God]
The Son of God is given only in some manuscripts. It was relevant when Mark finalized the gospel because Jesus whom the apostles were preaching was presented not as a popular teacher or prophet but as Son of God. Mark who was following the teachings of St. Peter gave importance to the divinity of Jesus that Peter had been proclaiming.

The Preaching of John the Baptist.

(2) As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. (3) A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet
Though Mark gives reference only to Isaiah, the quote is a combination of prophesies by Malachi and Isaiah: “Now I am sending my messenger - he will prepare the way before me; (Malachi 3:1) and “A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” (Isaiah 40:3). In fact, both the prophets mentioned almost the same. John’s mission was to prepare the people’s heart through repentance to receive the Messiah. Like the end of the Babylonian exile, Jesus was coming to the end the captivity of the people from the Evil.

I am sending
Though Prophet Malachi prophesied saying “I am sending my messenger,” the usage was a prophetic present. Malachi prophesied around 445 BC to 425 BC. It came into effect only four centuries later.

my messenger ahead of you
John the Baptist was the messenger who came ahead of Jesus. John was six months older than Jesus. His role was to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah in the hearts of the people by his message of repentance, conversion, and baptism. Even his birth and role were prophesied centuries before his birth. Though he was born as the son of a priest Zachariah, he served as a prophet of the Lord.

A voice of one crying out in the desert
The desert here means the desert between Palestine and Babylonia where John lived and preached. John’s preaching was strong and a cry for the conversion of heart because the people’s hearts were like barren desert producing no spiritual fruit.

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’
John’s role was to remove the obstacle of sin that was blocking the road for the Lord to enter into the heart of the people. The new dwelling place of the Lord was the human heart and not the second Temple of Jerusalem where the original Tabernacle and its contents and divine presence were missing. The Tabernacle with its contents were removed from the first Temple by Prophet Jeremiah before the Babylonian exile and were never recovered. (2 Maccabees 2:4-6). Hence, John came, as prophesied, to prepare the human hearts as the new dwelling places of the Lord.

the way of the Lord
The way of the Lord is not the worldly highway that we use for transportation. It is a passage for holy people to reach the Holy Place of God. “A highway will be there, called the holy way; No one unclean may pass over it, but it will be for his people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray on it.” (Isaiah 35:8).

Prepare
Angel Gabriel had clarified to Zachariah how John, his son, would prepare the way of the Lord. “He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17). John did this by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (Luke 3:3). He asked people to “produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance.” (Luke 3:8). To the crowds who asked John what to do, he said: “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” (Luke 3:11). To the tax collectors he said: “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” (Luke 3:13). And to the soldiers who came to him he said: “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3: 14). So, John had practical advice to prepare the sinners for the reception of the Lord.

make straight his paths
It was customary that the highways where the kings would pass were widened, hills were cut down and levelled, dips and valleys were filled, crooked roads were straightened and thus all hinderances were removed for a smooth ride. In the spiritual sense, the hindrances of sin had to be removed. The spiritual pride of the Jewish leaders were to be levelled, the crooked ways of the rulers and priests had to be straightened, the spiritual valleys of the sinners and gentiles were to be exalted.

(4) John [the] Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

appeared in the desert
Why John the Baptist selected desert to preach? It is believed that John’s parents took him at an early age from their little town in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39) to the Judean desert for safety to save his life soon after King Herod ordered to kill all male children under two years of age. The elderly parents died when John was young and he was then brought up by the Essenes community in the Judean desert. The Essenes were a group of priests who left Jerusalem in disagreement with the governing priests of the Temple of Jerusalem. The priests of the Essenes community moved to the wilderness to prepare for the way of the Lord and concentrated on the study of the Holy Scripture. They were active for about 100 years by the time Jesus started his public ministry. John might have been trained by this group though there is no evidence for it now.

Desert has been considered as an ideal place for fasting, prayer, and to be in communion with God. It provided silence, seclusion, non-proximity to material goods, and concentration for prayer. Moses, Prophet Elijah, the Essenes community, John the Baptist, and many early fathers of the church selected desert as perfect place for communion with God. Jesus also selected desert for his spiritual nourishment in preparation for his public ministry. The synoptic gospels record that, immediately after his baptism, Jesus prayed and fasted for 40 days in the desert where devil tempted him at the end of his fasting.

After 30 years of his life in the desert, John had emerged as a popular prophet. He was attracting people to to his spirit-filled preaching and call for repentance in preparation to receive the Christ.

a baptism of repentance
Baptism of John was not an initiation into any religion or community. It was a physical sign of repentance and renewal of life similar to confession in the Catholic church and some other Christian denominations. It was also in preparation for the baptism of Jesus with the Holy Spirit.

for the forgiveness of sins.
Baptism of John with immersion in water and emergence from it became a foreshadow of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself used this terminology. “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). This sacrifice of Jesus was to wash or take away the sin of the world. (John 1:29). John’s baptism was also for the forgiveness of sins and a prelude to what Jesus was going to accomplish through the “baptism” of his self-sacrifice.

(5) People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.

Unlike Jesus, John did not go out to towns or villages. He became famous from the desert and great crowds went to listen to him. The crowds were going to Jesus also for healing for themselves or for their dear ones. John did not perform any miracle. However, his ability to attract such a huge crowd from Jerusalem and the whole countryside of Judea was miraculous. John touched the hearts of his listeners in such a manner that they confessed their sins. They expressed their willingness to change their lifestyle by receiving baptism in the River Jordan.

Jordan River
This river is considered as one of the world’s most sacred rivers because of its biblical background and its usage for baptism by John the Baptist and Jesus. This river originates from the slopes of Mount Hermon, feeds Lake Hula that is drained now and Sea of Galilee, and ends up in the Dead Sea. Its length is 230 kilometers or 143 miles. During the separation of Abraham and Lot, Lot selected the valley of Jordan because it was fertile. (Genesis 13:10). The sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were here and the Lord later destroyed those sinful cities. (Genesis 19:1-29).

The significance for John to select Jordan for repentance was also because it was the port of entry for the Israelites into the promised land under the leadership of Joshua after the 40 years of wandering in the desert because of their sins. (Joshua 3:14-17). It was a miraculous crossing with the Ark of the Covenant under the guidance and protection of God. Prophet Elisha told Naaman the Syrian to wash seven times in the Jordan for his healing. (2 Kings 5:10). Thus River Jordan became a place for spiritual healing and renewal of life.

(6) John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.

clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.
John the Baptist was dressed like a prophet, especially Elijah, probably to reveal to his listeners that he was the expected Elijah before the coming of the Messiah. The description of Elijah’s dress as recorded in the Bible is, “He wore a hairy garment with a leather belt around his waist.” (2 Kings 1:8). John’s arrival as Elijah was already prophesied four centuries before his birth. “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes.” (Malachi 3:23-24 / 4:5-6). Angel Gabriel had revealed to Zachariah about John: “He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17). Jesus also had witnessed that John was the expected second coming of Elijah. “Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased.” (Matthew 17:12).

He fed on locusts and wild honey
Locusts were considered as clean and permitted food to eat. (Lev. 11:22). They were food of the poor people. Wild honey was gathered from the hollows of trees or rocks. That also was the food of the wanderers in the wilderness. The honey that came from the nectar of wildflowers were known as wild honey. John’s dependence on locusts and wild honey was considered as an indication that John was living like an Essene. Angel Gabriel had given an indication of John’s food style to Zachariah that “He will drink neither wine nor strong drink.” (Luke 1:15)

(7) And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.

One mightier than I is coming after me.
John acknowledged that Jesus, though coming after him, was mightier than him. John was aware of the divinity of Jesus. That was why John cried out: “The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” (John 1:15). Jesus, the Word of God, was mightier because “the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (John 1:1-3).

I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
Tying or loosening the thongs of another’s sandals, and carrying them were considered as menial job, usually done by the least in the society like a slave or a servant. John considered Jesus in such a high esteem that he felt himself not worthy even to stoop before Jesus and loosen the thongs of his sandals. Such was the contrast John felt between himself and Jesus. John’s humility and the nobility of Jesus are proclaimed here.

(8) I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.”

John proclaimed that the baptism by Jesus was far superior to the baptism he was giving. John’s baptism with water was a physical cleansing, symbolic of repentance and renewal of life. However, the baptism that Jesus performed was for taking away the original sin that was the root cause of all other mishaps in the world. His baptism was for the cleansing of the soul from the original sin and filling people with the Holy Spirit. The apostles received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Their successors and other Christian faithful received the same Holy Spirit by the baptisms they had performed and through the imposition of their hands.

Message

1. John the Baptist was the messenger of Jesus’ mission. The apostles and other disciples of Jesus also became the messengers of Jesus. We have received the message of Jesus through our forefathers in faith. Let us continue to transmit that message to the our contemporaries and to the future generations.

2. John’s message involved making straight the paths of the Messiah and repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Though we are all baptized in water and Holy Spirit, as humans we commit sins. So let us make use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation to make our souls clean and holy for God to dwell within us.

3. John’s exemplary life and his words out of conviction attracted many people in Judea and Jerusalem to him. However, he publicly expressed his humility and directed all his listeners and disciples to Jesus. Our life style, humility and Christo-centric approach are important in our Christian witnessing.