Mark 1:2-8–The Ministry of John the Baptist

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.

4 Responses to “Mark 1:2-8–The Ministry of John the Baptist”

  1.   Jerry Starling Says:

    A worthy continuation of your comments on Mark 1:1. I especially appreciate your comments on the quotations from Malachi and Isaiah. We have not normally thought of Israel still being in exile when John came preaching of the arrival of Messiah to end the exile by the sending of the Spirit. This is excellent material. Thank you.

  2.   Jr Says:

    I appreciate your writing, Dr. Hicks. A few questions:

    1) What is the significance of John’s baptism being for the forgiveness of sins – prior to the Messiah and without the Holy Spirit?

    2) Could you expand on the pouring out of the Spirit on all humanity? Are we talking about salvific pouring? And doesn’t “all flesh” equal “not just Jews, but also Gentiles” instead of “every single human being living regardless of their standing before God”? (in other words, “all flesh” meaning “all men without distinction” rather than “all men without exception”)

    Thanks, and we miss you in Memphis!

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks for the questions, Jr.

      I think the baptismal ritual in John’s preaching was an experience of liberation/redemption. It was the experience of forgiveness and renewal–analogous to a Red Sea experience in Israel’s history. It anticipated the Messiah and the coming of the Spirit; so, it is incomplete. But it is authentic though anticipatory of the fuller reign of God. I’m not sure if that gets to your point in asking the question. Let me know if not.

      My point on “all flesh” was not about universalism. It is more “all people without distinction” rather than “all people without exception.” In Luke’s account in Luke 3, he quotes an “all flesh” text that anticipates his quotation of Joel 2 in Acts 2. So, it is a universalizing of scope, but not a universalism in the technical theological sense of that term. Rather, it is the breaking down of barriers as in the Joel text–male/female, Jew/Gentile, and slave/free. The restoration of Israel, signaled by the pouring out of the Spirit, is inclusive.

      Hope that helps clarify.


  3.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I am enjoying reading your remarks regarding the Gospel of Mark. I just finished teaching this Gospel where I preach. I always appreciate reading how others read the text.

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