Mark’s telling of the gospel about Jesus begins with the ministry of John the Baptizer. This telling is shaped by quotations from two Hebrew prophets–Malachi (3:1) and Isaiah (40:3), though Mark only references by name the most prominent prophet.
The Malachi text announces the coming of a messenger who will precede God’s own coming to the temple for judgment and blessing. Given the judgment upon covenant violators (including those who do not pay just wages to their workers as well as those who mistreat the needy), the text calls for repentance which suits John’s own message and baptismal ritual.
The Isaiah text comforts the people of God with a message of redemption. God will level mountains and raise valleys in order to make a path for the people of God to return from exile in Babylon. God is bringing redemption to his still exiled people (a la N. T. Wright). Israel’s exile from Babylon may have ended, but their exilic status as an oppressed people continued under the Persians, Greeks and Romans. Israel was looking for a New Exodus, for redemption.
John’s ministry, shaped by these texts (in their whole rather than as snippets), locates him as a prophet who announces the end of the exile of God’s people and calls them to repentance in anticipation of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. God is coming to his people in both judgment and blessing. Consequently, the people of Israel repent, confess their sins and are baptized for the forgiveness of their sins in order to prepare themselves for the coming reign of God, that is, to prepare themselves to receive the Messiah (Christ). Israel hears the word of the prophet, crosses the Red Sea again (typified by their baptism), and enters the wilderness of waiting for the coming of the Messiah.
Much like the Qumran community went into the desert to await the kingdom as a penitent community, so Israel hears the preaching of God’s prophet, submits to a water ritual as an act of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins, and awaits the Messiah. Mark underscores John’s own prophetic role by noting his diet and clothing (cf. Zech 13:7). John is a wilderness kind of guy whose prophetic role is signaled by his austere lifestyle.
But John is not the Messiah. He only baptizes in water. The Messiah will baptize in the Holy Spirit. The introduction of the Holy Spirit here is significant. The pouring out of the Spirit is the end of the exile in several prophetic texts, most notably Joel 2 (quoted in Acts 2), Isaiah 61 (quoted in Luke 4) and Ezekiel 36. The presence of the Spirit is the presence of redemption, restoration and renewal.
The Messiah will pour out the Spirit and baptize his people in the Spirit. John’s role is to point to the Messiah, announce his coming, and prepare a people for his arrival. Repentance, confession of sin and baptism in water for the forgiveness of sins prepares Israel to receive the Messiah’s gift of the Spirit. Baptism in the Spirit here is not a special gift to a few but is the promise of God to Israel (and to “all flesh”). God will pour out the Spirit on all humanity.
John’s ministry is good news–the Messiah is coming. The message is not “take up the sword and prepare for the kingdom.” Rather, the message is “repent, confess and be baptized.” We receive the kingdom–and the kingdom comes in the person of Jesus–through obedient submission to the reign of God and not through a violent, revolutionary agenda. The people who receive the kingdom are those who repent, confess and submit to God’s kingdom call. Only a humble people can enter and embrace the kingdom of Christ.