We're looking this morning at verses 1 to 8. Now some people believe, some scholars, that verse 1 is in fact the title of Mark's Gospel. Of course, many of the first verses of the first chapters of books in the Bible are indeed the titles, if you like. There are others who believe that this verse 1 is referring to what follows in the next verse and right through to verse 8 or thereabouts: how the story of the Gospel began, the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Well, if you want to comprise those two views, verses 1-8 could comprise of, if you like, the beginning of the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It's how the whole story began.
Well, how did it begin? I wonder if I was to ask you the question: where did the Gospel begin? What would your answer be? It's a kind of tricky one, isn't it? Perhaps your answer would be: 'Well, it begins with the Nativity, Jesus being born, the Son of God, into the human race in a miraculous way at His conception, and then born in Bethlehem's manger'. Well, we've got a problem with that, because Mark, as we saw last week, doesn't have a nativity story - yet he has taken it upon himself, as verse 1 shows us, to write 'the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ'. So we would have to say that the account of the Gospel as such does not begin, essentially, with the birth of Christ. Indeed, Mark begins the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the story of the ministry of John the Baptist.
Now you remember we outlined last week that Matthew's purpose in writing his Gospel was to show forth the King and His kingdom, and he gives us the Nativity story, and indeed the lineage of the Lord Jesus to show that He is of blood line of the King, and He is the promised Messiah-King. Luke's Gospel, the purpose of the writer is to show forth the human nature of the Lord Jesus Christ, and as such he gives us another genealogy of the Lord Jesus as a man. John's Gospel, the purpose is to set forth Jesus as the Son of God, as being divine, so he gives us this Nativity story, as it were, way back in eternity past: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' - His sonship as the eternal Son of God, rather than as Son of Man.
Mark's purpose, of course, as we have said, is to set forth the Lord Jesus as the Servant of Jehovah. It appears that as Mark does this in his Gospel he's keen, dare we say even impatient, to launch into a presentation of the earthly service of the Lord Jesus to God and to all of mankind. Look at chapter 1 for instance: he rushes through the record of the ministry of John the Baptist in little more than eight verses, he rushes through the baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ, the temptation of the Saviour in a verse or two, to get to the record in verse 14 and following of Christ's ministry on the earth. So Mark is giving us a record of the Servant of Jehovah, and that record does not begin in Bethlehem's manger, but strangely it begins in a city called Babylon. Babylon?
Well, it's as if it begins there, because he takes us right back to the ministry of the evangelical prophet Isaiah, who ministered to the Jews as they were facing captivity in Babylon because of their sins against God. We have in verse 2: 'As it is written in the prophets', some manuscripts say 'in the prophet Isaiah', and there is the prophecy: 'I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'. So Mark, giving us an account of the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, takes us back to the prophet Isaiah. He also quotes Malachi, and in fact he quotes him first in this verse 2, for it is he who said: 'I send my messenger before thy face', and then in verse 3 he quotes Isaiah.
Two quotes from the Old Testament, Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. So right away, and we'll visit this in a moment or two, he's going back further than Bethlehem to establish the identity of the One who is the Servant of Jehovah. Mark is seeking to establish for us the Servant's identity, and in verse 1 he does it: 'The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God' - Jesus, the man who would be the Saviour of mankind; Christ, the anointed One who was prepared of God and prophesied in the Old Testament; and this One is none other than the Son of God in His divine being, He is the eternal pre-existent Son.
But this is Mark's point: where does the Gospel begin? The Servant of Jehovah begins in Old Testament prophecy, He is the Son of God. So Mark, as the Holy Spirit's inspired author, is now witnessing to the identity of this Servant of Jehovah. Mark is witnessing to it, and now he's pulling up, if you like, into the stand to witness, the prophets - Malachi and Isaiah. We will see in this account of verses 1-8 that he also calls up to the stand John the Baptist as another witness to the identity of the Servant of Jehovah. Later, God willing next week, in verses 9-13 we find that he also calls up the Father and the Spirit to witness as to who the identity is of this Servant of Jehovah.
But in another sense, the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is now actualised in time in the ministry of John the Baptist, who is the fulfilment of Isaiah and Malachi's prophecies in verses 2 and 3. So, prophetically this Gospel of Jesus Christ begins for Mark, prophetically, in the prophecies of Malachi and Isaiah and all the other prophets - but actually, Mark is saying to us, actually in time the ministry and the beginning of the Gospel starts through John the Baptist. Now there are several points here of interest - one being, in our particular society today and in the church, that the Gospel has been redefined by many. You often hear it said in debates on the radio, even in the press, that the Gospel is 'to love your neighbour'. Well, yes, that statement and many more are contained within the gospels, but that of course is not the Gospel. The problem takes place when people maintain that the Gospel is a genre of literature setting forth a historical record of the whole life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now that's true, the gospel, or a gospel is a form of literature - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - but that is not the Gospel. We see that very clearly, because we don't have a record in Mark's Gospel of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. His Nativity is absent.
So we're left with the question: then what is the Gospel? Is it simply the whole story of Jesus' life? Mark would indicate that it is not, because he leaves out His birth, so what is the Gospel in essence? I believe the answer is given to us by Mark - the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God - and where does it all begin? Not just in Old Testament prophecy, prophetically in Malachi and Isaiah, but actually where did it all begin? In the fulfilment of Malachi and Isaiah's prophecy in the person of John the Baptist, and what John the Baptist preached, and who John the Baptist pointed to. Matthew Henry puts it well when he says in his commentary: 'The Gospel did not begin so soon as the birth of Christ, for He took time to increase in wisdom and stature. Not so late as His entering upon His public ministry, but half a year before when John the Baptist began to preach the same doctrine that Christ afterward preached'. I believe Matthew Henry is correct, but that poses some questions for us this morning, and I believe their answers will be deeply instructive and beneficial to us.
The first question is: did the Gospel begin with John the Baptist? The second question is: was the Gospel preached by John the Baptist the same Gospel preached by Jesus? Well the answer to the first question I think is clear in Luke's Gospel chapter 16:16, which says: 'The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it' - the kingdom being preached at the beginning by John the Baptist. Peter actually, when he recounts during the occasion of the choosing of Matthias in Acts chapter 1:22, he records there that: 'Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us', that is the Lord, 'must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection' - speaking of how an apostle had to be a witness in some shape or form of the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, he records that ministry as being from John the Baptist, the baptism of John to when the Lord was taken up from them after His resurrection.
So I think that's clear, and in verse 14 of Mark's Gospel we see that after John was put in prison, in chapter 1: 'Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel' - preaching exactly the same thing as John the Baptist preached. So then, how did the Gospel begin in John the Baptist, and what was his message? I want to give you the answer to those questions under two headings - first of all: the Baptist's life was an illustration of the Gospel; and secondly: the Baptist's preaching was an articulation of the Gospel.
So first of all: the Baptist's life was an illustration of the Gospel. In Matthew 11, Jesus called John the Baptist 'the greatest of the prophets', and of course he is identified in the Old Testament prophetically and in the New in Matthew 17 with Elijah the prophet, and we see him very similar in his demeanour and his dress. But this is Mark's point, I believe, and we could go into all those little intricate details and miss the point: John the Baptist lived, in his life, the message of the Gospel. He was a witness to Christ and to the Gospel by his lifestyle, and that is one of the senses in which he begins the beginning of the Gospel of Christ.
Now let me show you this. Take, for instance, his home - verse 4 says he lived in the wilderness. William Hendrickson, the commentator, gives us a very graphic picture of what the wilderness was in those days: 'John was preaching', he says, 'in the wilderness of Judaea, a term indicating the rolling badlands between the country of Judaea to the West and the Dead Sea, and the lower Jordan to the east, stretching northward about the point where the Jabbok flows into the Jordan. It is indeed a desolation, a vast undulating expanse of barren chalky soil covered with pebbles, broken stones and rocks. Here and there a bit of brushwood appears with snakes crawling underneath'. Another person says: 'It shimmers in the haze of the heat, the limestone rock is hot and blistering, and sounds hollow to the feet as if there was some vast furnace underneath. In the Old Testament it is sometimes called 'Jeshimon', which means 'the devastation''. Hendrickson goes on: 'It is evident from Isaiah and John's preaching as recorded by Mark, that the wilderness through which a path must be made ready for the Lord is, in the final analysis, the people's hearts that were inclined to all evil'. So John, where he lived, was actually living out a pictorial illustration of the message that he was preaching to prepare the way for the Lord to come to the hearts of men and women in Israel. His home speaks forth of the wilderness of the hearts of men.
Secondly, his life illustrates the Gospel in the clothing that he wore - verse 6, if you look at it, he wore a garment that was woven from camels hair, and a leather thong about his waist. Just like Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8, and of course Elijah was expected by the Jews to be the forerunner of Messiah. But here is Mark's point: when you looked at John the Baptist, as one has said before, you weren't reminded of the fashionable orators of the day but of the ancient prophets who lived close to the great simplicities, and avoided the soft and effeminate luxuries which kill the soul. His home and his clothing were speaking of the absolute poverty of humanity to come to God. Here he is, calling the people out into the wilderness to recognise their inability before God.
His home, his clothing, thirdly his food - verse 6 tells us that he ate locusts, which indeed was permitted in Leviticus 11 - mightn't be very appetising, but it was allowed - and wild honey. Wild honey was often bountiful in the clefts of the rock, and there's a lovely thought even in that. Whatever these foods were, and whatever his diet consisted of - I don't think this is an exclusive statement that that's all he ate, but it's a general reference to the simple food that John ate. It was of the simplest fare imaginable. Now, think of his home, think of his clothing, think of his food, and all that is being conveyed here by Mark is that this man John the Baptist subordinated these things which are so basic, yet so important to us in our lives - home, clothing and food - he subordinated these personal things to the glorious task of making Christ and the Gospel known.
Perhaps he could have been rich, I don't know, but he chose to be poor. One thing is certain: he became a fitting herald of Him who has not where to lay His head. He became an apt servant to the Servant of Jehovah. What was the result of this lifestyle that illustrated the Gospel? Well, it's found in verse 5, we're told that 'there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized'. Now that is in the imperfect indicative, where it says 'Then went out unto him'. Now that simply means this: it's describing a steady stream of people who kept coming to the baptism. Now 'all' there cannot mean 'all' of course, many feel that it could be up to 300,000 people who came to John for baptism - but it's again the use of hyperbole, in other words he's exaggerating to make the point. It wasn't every citizen in Jerusalem and Judaea came out and was baptised - no, but generally there was a widespread acceptance and an embracing of the ministry of John and his preaching. All classes, we know from the Gospel, came out - in Matthew 3 the Pharisees and the Sadducees, some of them went out to hear him; in Luke 3 the publicans or tax collectors went out; in Luke 3 again, verse 10, the rich and the poor were there; Luke 3:14, the soldiers went out to listen to his preaching.
Why was he so successful in his ministry? Well, obviously, the main reason was that it was ordained of God. He was the fulfilment of this prophecy of the one who would prepare the way of the Lord, but on a human level surely it is not insignificant to see that this preacher's life paralleled his message, and what he said agreed with how he lived. In other words, John the Baptist was a walking Gospel, and his whole life illustrated it. How different we are! How different I am! We talk about sacrifice, we talk about giving to Gospel causes, but perhaps we just go on our merry way living in the luxuries that everybody else lives in, without any inconvenience for the cause of the Servant of Jehovah. Not John the Baptist, and I think that was one of the reasons that people listened to him.
Do we, as Christians, go against the trends of the day to make a point for the sake of the Gospel of Christ? That's what John the Baptist was doing, and though he was fulfilling prophecy, in this sense it is irrelevant: we need to grasp the point that John's dress, John's lifestyle were a protest against the godlessness, the self-serving materialism of the day, even in the echelons of the religious establishment. His life was a call, literally, to separation: 'Come out!'.
Fourthly, one other factor that was illustrative of the Gospel - not only his home, his clothing, his food - was his humility. As the Sun of Righteousness rose on the horizon of Israelite history, John, the North Star who was guiding folk to Christ, eclipsed. Jesus came on the scene, John disappeared. Humility. We read that John was quite happy to do that, in John 3 John said: 'A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven. Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him'. He saw himself, from John 3 we know, as the friend of the Bridegroom, rejoicing in the voice of the Bridegroom. In verse 30 of John 3 he speaks these immortal words: 'He must increase, but I must decrease'.
Humility - now we'll look at this a little bit later, but save to say that there's a great lesson in this for any of us who are preachers. I have felt the lesson deeply as I've been studying. R. Kent Hughes in his commentary makes the point of how John embodied the message that he preached, and he quoted referring to 1877 Yale Lectures on preaching that were given by Phillip Brooks. When he was lecturing he gave this foundational definition of what preaching is, this is what he said, I'm quoting: 'Truth through personality is our description of real preaching. The truth must come through the person, not merely over his lips, it must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him'. He goes on to quote Bishop Quayle who said almost the same thing by asking the question: 'Preaching is the art of making a sermon and delivering it?', to which he answered, 'Why, no! That is not preaching, preaching is the art of making a preacher and delivering that'.
John the Baptist was a living sermon that God delivered to Israel. E. M. Bounds put it like this: 'It takes 20 years to make a preacher, because it takes 20 years to make a man'. John, from his mother's womb, was filled by the Spirit of God. He was a Nazarite from birth, totally committed to God - what a message!
Secondly let's look at the Baptist's preaching - how was he the beginning of the Gospel in his preaching? Well, his preaching, I believe, was an articulation of the Gospel. Malachi 3:1 spoke prophetically of him, Isaiah 40:3 - Malachi says he was a messenger, and Isaiah 40 said he would be a voice. The significance of that is that for 400 years after the prophet Malachi, before we come to Matthew's Gospel, there was no voice from God - God did not speak to the nation of Israel. Now John would be that voice in the wilderness coming to prepare the way for the Son of God.
Now we have to understand a bit of the custom of the day to appreciate what this preparation of the way of the Lord really means. In ancient times, before a King visited any part of his realm, there was a messenger that was sent on before him to prepare the way. Often, depending on how high and mighty the Emperor was, it was a band of engineers and workmen that would go along the road to prepare the way of the King. The thoroughfare may have been rough and mountainous, and you can just imagine that these people in their day would have been familiar, nearly every generation witnessed such road making for their Emperors. Josephus the historian describes the march of Roman Emperor Vespasian, who succeeded Nero, and he says that the engineers went before Vespasian, and they were to make the road even and straight - if anywhere there was roughness or hardness, they were to smooth it over, to plane it, to cut down even woods if it hindered the march of the army.
Here we have an illustration that people would have understood: John the Baptist is coming, preparing the way of the Lord out in the wilderness, living like an Old Testament prophet; and he's now communicating that he wants to prepare a way in the hearts of the men and women of Israel for the Lord coming. Now how did he do it? We see how he depicted it, but how did he actually do it? He did it through his preaching. Somewhere in the last, I don't know how many years, the evangelical church has got away from preaching, and preaching is in ill-repute. 'Do anything, do everything but preach!', but it is by the foolishness of preaching that God has ordained to save, and through his preaching he prepared the way of the Lord, and in his preaching he was beginning the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, articulating the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There are essentials, I believe, in John's ministry to show us what good Gospel preaching is. Let me show you this, how his preaching was an articulation of the Gospel. First of all verse 4: he preached the remission of sins, through the baptism of the remission of sins. Now 'remission' simply means 'forgiveness' or 'sending away', sending away sin. In other words, John the Baptist, through this baptism - and I believe that it's obvious he received confession before he baptised anyone, confession of their sins - he was encouraging the people to see their need of forgiveness, and to see that they could not achieve forgiveness themselves, and then to point to how that forgiveness could be obtained. He's preparing the way for the Lord, preaching remission of sins.
Secondly we see that he's preaching repentance. Verse 4, it's a baptism of repentance that he is administrating. In other words, you've got to forsake sin and turn to God. One commentator refers to the fact of how baptism was a wholly novel idea, no one else had ever baptised like John. The only thing that ever existed that was quite close was the fact that whenever Gentiles converted to Judaism, they were ritually washed from their defilement and uncleanness that they had accrued through their past Gentile sinfulness. But the Jews were now being asked themselves, God's true chosen people, to be washed - this was unheard of, Jews being baptised? John was wanting to point out that all need repentance, everyone, Jews and Gentiles. So he's preaching the forgiveness of sins, that we need it; and he's pointing, as we'll see in a moment, to the One who can get it for us; but he's also telling us that repentance is necessary, and it's not a cheap grace or a cheap forgiveness.
The Jews had to go out into the wilderness, and I just suppose that they would have been reminded of the 40 years that they wandered around in the wilderness because of their backsliding and their disobedience - but the purpose of all of it, John's life and John's preaching, was to get them to that point of repentance so that when the Lord Jesus came He would have acceptance. How is our brokenness for sin? You know, this is the preparation for the Gospel that is necessary, this is the beginning of the Gospel in all of our lives - 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted'. I have a firm conviction that a great many of the false professions that are around today, and the so-called backsliders, are because there was a lack of repentance when they professed Jesus Christ as the Saviour. They took hold of Christ, but didn't let go of their sin. The fact remains from scripture that that means they didn't take hold of Christ at all.
He preached remission of sins, he preached repentance, and then in verses 7 and 8 he preached Christ! How else could we see that his preaching was an articulation of the Gospel except in this very point: the pure Gospel is Christ! May I just say that it's interesting, in passing, that John the Baptist did not magnify baptism. I believe, of course, in believer's baptism - but isn't it interesting that that wasn't the theme of his message? He baptised, but the theme was Christ! He magnified Jesus Christ, and often we get sidetracked from Christ even by sound doctrine and true doctrine, and Christ is eclipsed by our doctrine! John preached Christ. How did he preach Christ? One, Christ's preeminence. Matthew Henry says: 'Christ is so high, so great, that John - though one of the greatest that was born of women - thinks himself unworthy to be employed in the meanest office about Him, even to stoop down and untie His shoes - 'I am unworthy''. Christ's preeminence! He set Christ above himself, and he set himself as low as he could in the presence of Christ.
Now sandals today are all mod-con, but in those days they were composed of leather soles, fastened to the foot by straps passed through the toes. The roads were unsurfaced, in dry weather they were dust heaps, in wet weather they were rivers of mud. But according to ancient Jewish tradition, the difference between a disciple and a servant or a slave was this: a disciple was willing to perform every service for his master that a menial servant would have performed, except untie his sandals. So what may well be given to us here are the three ascending degrees of humility in John's life - note it: one, the disciple is willing to render almost every service. A disciple will do everything except untie a man's sandals. Two, the slave, the servant must be willing to render every service including untying sandals - but here's what John says, this is where he was: the Baptist considers himself even unfit or unworthy to render the service of untying his Master's sandal straps. The preeminence of Christ - so high, and I so low!
He preached Christ's preeminence, secondly he preached Christ's power. He says: 'He that comes after me in time is mightier than I. I baptised you with water, I drenched you', literally, 'immersed you in water, externally cleansing you. But He will come and drench you with the Holy Spirit, cleanse you from within to without'. Of course, John could only prepare their hearts, Jesus had the power to mend them. He pointed to Christ, pre-eminent, powerful. He pointed to His promise, that He would baptise them with the Holy Spirit - and we know from John 3 that this was the new birth, we know from Acts chapter 2 that in the Day of Pentecost it was realised in the birth of the church and the coming of the Spirit. His promise came true! John preaching this gospel, the preeminence of Christ, Christ's power, Christ's promise, and also - though it's not found in Mark - Christ's passion.
He preached the cross. In John 1 we hear the Baptist saying, verse 29 and later on, 'Behold, the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world'. He knew the basis for the remission of sins was the shedding of the blood of the Lamb. So, in John's life we see the beginning of the Gospel illustrated through his lifestyle. We see it articulated in his preaching. In a nutshell, he preached Christ and Him crucified. That is why Paul would say to us: 'I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified'. How do we measure to John? But you know, Mark is giving us account of John the Baptist's beginning of the ministry and Gospel of Jesus Christ - and do you know what John and Mark have in common? They're always directing people's attention to Jesus. Mark never names himself once in his Gospel, he alludes to it in chapter 14 as we saw last week. And John is always pointing people to Christ - the Baptist witnessed Christ to, eventually, the expense of his ministry which faded away, and his life as he was decapitated by Herod.
Can I ask you as we close this morning: what is it costing us to be servants of the Servant of Jehovah? Does it cost us our home? Our clothing? Our food? Our pride? Does it cost us ourselves, as we point from ourselves to Jesus? Dr G. J. Jeffrey was speaking many years ago when old telephone exchanges were in operation - some of you remember that. He said these words: 'When we make a telephone call and there's some delay, the operator will often say, 'I'm trying to connect you', and when the connection has been effected the operator fades out and leaves us in direct contact with the person to whom we wish to speak'. He said these words: 'John's one aim was not to occupy the centre of the stage himself, but try to connect men with the One who was greater and stronger than he, and men listened to him because he pointed not to himself but to the One whom all men need'.
Lord Jesus Christ, we pray, be our vision. We ask that we will take the exhortation of Mark and John, and look to Jesus and Him alone for our salvation, for the remission of our sins, for the power to repent - the pre-eminent Christ, the powerful Christ, the Christ who gives the promise of God, the passionate Christ who died for us that we might live. Lord, let us see at all times Jesus, and in seeing Him as the Servant of Jehovah, let us learn what it is to serve, let us take the position of John the Baptist - feeling himself unworthy to unloose the latchet of the sandals of Christ. May we perpetually decrease, and Christ eternally increase to the glory of God. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Evangelical Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the second recording in his 'Studies In Mark' series, entitled "John The Baptist, and The Beginning Of The Gospel" - Transcribed by Preach The Word.
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