“John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4 ESV).
Mark has a rather abrupt way of introducing new characters into his story, and here in the fourth verse we’re already being told of one rather unusual man named John. We know more about John the Baptizer when we combine all four gospel accounts, and apparently he was somewhat of a firebrand. Here he comes out of nowhere, dressed in weird clothing, eating bugs and honey, and proclaiming that God’s Kingdom was on its way. He drew huge crowds and many of the people who heard him preach did confess their sins and get baptized in the Jordan River.
At this point, the temptation is to smile and go on to the next section of verses. However, this is where a good commentary can help you understand the context and see things that you’d never realize on your own. It starts with the question, where did John’s baptism come from?
Well, the Jews had long practiced ceremonial washing under the law of Moses. Much of the Old Testament instruction here was for sanitation and good health, but there was a clear spiritual element as well. The Jews were very familiar with the concept of washing for purity. And, even more interestingly, when non-Jewish people wanted to join the Jewish religion and the nation of Israel, they were ceremonially baptized, indicating the washing away of their old pre-Jewish self, and the cleansing of their new identity with God’s people.
What is unique about John’s baptism is that it wasn’t for non-Jews. He preached baptism to the Jews, who, according to their traditions and religious systems, didn’t need to be baptized! John’s message was altogether new. He preached at a point in history when God was about to do something entirely new in the world and needed His people to testify to His work. Unfortunately, as we will see later in Mark’s gospel, God’s chosen people weren’t really on board with His new work in the world.
There are ebbs and flows of faith in history, times when faith is real, God moves powerfully, and the world is impacted by His people. There are also other times when faith is shallow, God’s people are distracted, and they leave little if any positive impact. There are times when cultures, societies, and nations turn away from God, and the situation deteriorates dramatically, until, at a low point, revival fires spark, faith is renewed, and life is lived more according to God’s will.
This is where John the Baptizer lived and preached, and this is where, in my opinion, the church in America is today. Sadly, as in John’s time, much of our American church culture has seen the hardening of customs, traditions, attitudes, and expectations until faith itself depends on them. And now, as society stumbles blindly in the darkness of sin, we have the opportunity to shine the light of Christ. God wants to explode His love in new ways to the world around us.
He is doing something new, are we ready for it? He is changing what “church” has become to what He intended it to be, are we ready for it? Will we let go of our customs, traditions, cherished practices and programs and let God shape us into something new? Thankfully, I believe God has placed me in a church where He is working, He is molding us into something new, and we will yield to His will. I love pastoring here at PBC! I’m ready for the next step God is leading us! Let us run with abandon in the direction God guides.
God is doing something new… are you ready?