John the Baptist was a weird dude. If he were into our churches today, it would cause quite a stir. People would think he had just come from the looney bin! But God was working wonders through John that drew people from all over Judea. Instead of seeing a crazed nomad, they saw a man possessed by the power of God. The question is . . . what do people see when they look at you?
MARK - THE GOSPEL OF ACTION
“FIVE SMALL LOCUSTS AND TWO CUPS OF HONEY”
We begin a study, this morning, in the Gospel of Mark where we will be studying for the next few months together, expositionally going through this, the gospel of action. You know, as I read the first verse of Mark, chapter 1, a word stuck out, the word “beginning.” And I went back in my mind to Genesis, chapter 1, where it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” You know, it should strike us, not as surprising, that God does not begin with the proof of His existence nor does He give us all of the reasons why we should believe that He did create the heavens and the earth. He simply says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” You see, creation is not open to debate. In fact, it’s as announcement. We come to the first few words of this New Testament gospel and we also have an announcement, not a debate nor a discussion. He says, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It’s not a debate. It’s not open for the necessity of proof. It’s simply an announcement. Barclay translates it, “This is the beginning of the story.” I like that. It’s as if Mark says, “Look, this is how it all started, way back then with the beginning of Jesus Christ, the gospel of that One, who is the Son of God.” You ought to jot into the margin of your Bible the reference, I Corinthians, chapter 15, and underline the word “gospel.” Because Paul will define for us that the gospel is the fact that Jesus Christ died for our sins, He was buried according to the scriptures and then He rose again. That is the announcement. And so, John, the disciple of action, just kind of jumps in and begins with the public ministry of Jesus Christ.
Look at verse 2, “As it is written in the prophets, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.’” And I want to give you a couple of notes. The first one is, seemingly Christ’s strange choice for heralds. We’re going to look, this morning, at John the Baptizer, or John the Baptist as we know him. But, you know, it’s fascinating that when Jesus Christ decided to announce His birth, He didn’t interrupt the synagogue meeting, He didn’t go and find the most religious man in the Rabbinical system, in fact, we find that He went, by way of His angels, and announced it to the shepherds. You see, the shepherds were considered unclean in the Rabbinical system and that religious system because a shepherd can’t tell his flocks, “Now you just munch on that grass over there and I’m going to leave you for about five hours and go to the synagogue, worship and come back.” They couldn’t do that. And so, because they were not able to get away, they were continually unclean, defiled. And Jesus Christ wants to announce His birth and so He goes to someone considered unclean. A strange choice.
But now He is about to announce that coming kingdom. He seeks a herald to introduce, to the world, His ministry. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Once again He doesn’t go to the local seminary in Jerusalem. He doesn’t seek out the most religious individual, the one with the flowing robes, reads the scriptures, on the Sabbath morning. He chooses, instead, a strange man, who we are about to look at. A man with, probably, wild looking hair and a full beard. A man who had lived in the desert all of his life. A strange man who was totally separate from the religious system. And Jesus Christ says, “I want HIM to announce My coming kingdom.” And John does so, John the Baptist different from John the apostle. John the Baptist, an Old Testament prophet, says in verse 3, notice, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’” In fact, notice the last part of verse 2, the same phrase, “which shall prepare thy way before thee.” Why was there a necessity for preparation? Well, for almost 400 years between the time of Malachi and the opening of the gospel, Mark, who I believe was written first before Matthew, although he comes second in our canon of scripture, between Malachi and Mark you have almost 400 years. They called that the silent years. God had not spoken. We’re going to find that some rather interesting things were developing over this 400 years of silence. And God needed someone to come onto the scene and wake everybody up. And he did that. He said, “Listen, prepare the way. Straighten out your crooked paths. Clean up your act.” So notice his preaching then. He says, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.”
You know, John the Baptist was a man who was supposed to come onto the scene and begin to soften the hearts of those people who had lived without God, although they claimed to know God. You know, I couldn’t help but think, as I sat there studying, who was the person, in your life, who played the role of John the Baptist? Was there someone? Someone who came along, in your life, and began to soften your heart, maybe with the seed of the gospel, maybe with some spoken word, maybe just a prayer on your behalf? Some person who acted like John the Baptist who prepared the way for Christ in your heart. But then that also made me ask a rather challenging question, have I ever played the role, have you ever played the role of John the Baptist in someone else’s life in preparing the way for Christ?
Notice verse 4, “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” - a rather confusing passage. And we need to dig a little deeper, this morning, all right? Rather than just kind of skate over this verse and say, “Well, we don’t believe that baptism is for the remission of sin.” You need to understand some things. First of all, just get it into your mind that John is an Old Testament prophet. When he baptized, he was not baptizing like we baptize here in the New Testament church. This is still Old Testament economy. It isn’t until after the cross that we have the introduction of the New Covenant. So John is still living, in a sense, in the Old Testament system. Now, he baptized people and it says he baptized a baptism of repentance. You could jot into the margin or into your notes, that baptism was the outward sign of repentance and that would be the inward change for the remission of sins that would be the end result. What John was doing was not a New Testament church believer’s baptism. We call it proselyte baptism. You see, when a Gentile decided to follow after God, and he was going to begin pursuing God with all those other people, those Jews, who were God-fearers, several things had to happen. First of all, if he were a man, he had to be circumcised to get into alliance with the Abrahamic covenant. And then a sacrifice would have to be made. And then, thirdly, he would have to be baptized, this old proselyte baptism. Evidently, John was baptizing by immersion, as it says he went down into the water with Christ and came up out. We’re not sure that all the prophets did it that way. And yet, there was the baptism and that baptism, in the Old Testament, was so closely linked with the fact that they were beginning to follow God, that, in their minds, you did not have repentance without baptism. Now, we understand it, in the New Testament sense of the word, that you are baptized as a result of repentance. With them, it seemed like it was taking one step forward and you found in that one step, not only repentance, but baptism. And so, he would have all of these people come up. But the fascinating thing about John’s proselyte baptism was that he was asking Jews to go through it, not Gentiles, but Jews. Imagine the humility of telling a Jew, a Pharisee, a scribe, an Essene, “Hey, you need to be baptized if you are going to become a God-fearer.” And they would say, “Well, wait a second, we are God-fearers already.” And that’s why his message was so interesting. He came on to the scene and he said, “ALL of you, you need to prepare for the coming Messiah and you need to reveal to the world your repentance by taking this public right of baptism.” And, as a result, the religious system hated him. He was a little too convicting for them. Well, that was his preaching and that was his baptism.
I’ve given you, in your notes, some things you ought to jot down. That is, the difference between the baptism of John and Christ’s baptism. But before you write, look at verse 8, “I indeed have baptized you with water; but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” There were three differences, perhaps more, but let me give you three of them. John’s baptism was the old sign. The old sign, that was the proselyte baptism. Don’t confuse it with what we do here when someone comes to Christ. Christ’s baptism was the new sign. And that new sign was the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. Unlike the Old Testament, ladies and gentlemen, you and I have the baptism of the Holy Spirit when we accepted Jesus Christ, I Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 13. And that baptism is past tense, “And you were all” - “baptized into one body” - “at the moment of conversion.” So it is different than John. Secondly, John’s baptism was external. But Christ’s baptism, that being of the Holy Spirit, is internal. And then, finally, John’s baptism bathed the body but Christ’s baptism cleansed the heart.
Now, I want you to notice the audience of John the Baptist. Look at verse 5, “And there went out unto him all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan”. Notice, it’s almost as if, while they were being baptized, they were confessing their sin. Now, I need to give you some background into this Old Testament time. Seneca, a historian who lived in Rome during this time, called Rome, by the way Mark was written to the Roman Christians, called Rome, “the cesspool of the ancient world.” You see, Greek civilization, after Alexander the Great had conquered basically the known world, had begun to Hellinize or Greek-ize the world. The problem with the Greek civilization was that it was pagan to the core. They worshipped the body. That’s why all of the statues that you see, and you see the resurgence of this, you will see the statues of naked bodies. It just seemed that, in the Greek mind, they worshipped the physical. There was gross immorality. Homosexuality was rampant in that world. And it was at that world that John the Baptist comes in on the scene.
But you had a movement that began, if you’ll follow me, it was a movement that began very well. It was a movement that sought to separate from this Greek, pagan world and become separated unto God. The leaders of this movement were men who called themselves, Pharisees. Pharisee literally means, “to be separate.” And so, these Pharisees pulled out from that culture, from that society and said, “We’re going to be different. We’re going to be Godly. We’re going to be separatists.” It began well. But there became a problem because they developed, not only law and the extension of law from the Old Testament, but they began to write oral traditions called the Mishnah. In fact, the Mishnah grew and it is several thousands of pages long. And then they had to write something to explain the Mishnah, so they wrote what they called the Talmud. The Talmud was the commentary that explained the Mishnah that was additions to the Old Testament law. And so, in less than a hundred years, you have a movement that began well, ending in a totally external religious system that we refer to, almost with a spit in our teeth, as Phariseeism. But they began more, they began the synagogue system, and did all of these things.
But I have, and I want to read to you, some of the additions to the law. Let me give you and illustration. Exodus, chapter 20, verse 8, says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” There are 24 chapters in the Mishnah on this one phrase. You know, they needed to explain it. Basically, you’re not supposed to work. So what they do is, they come along and they define work. First point, “If you have a sore throat on the sabbath, you may swallow vinegar but not gargle it, for that would be work.” Second, these are crucial things you understand, secondly, “No woman should look in the mirror on the sabbath, for she might see a gray hair and be tempted to pull it out and this would be considered work.” You know, this is revolutionary, isn’t it? Third point, “A knot could be tied in a rope if you only used one hand.” Imagine using one hand to tie your shoes. Well, they did have four exceptions. Number one, “When tying your wine skins,” you could use two hands. “When tying your sandal straps. When a woman ties her cap. And when a woman ties her girdle.” So they made exceptions to the rule, fortunately. “If a man needs water and cannot tie a knot with one hand in the rope to let down the water bucket into his well, then he may tie it to his wife’s girdle and let it down for a two-handed knot in a girdle is quite legal.” Fascinating! I wonder how many men lost their wives down wells? “It’s okay, Dear, I’ll pull you up as soon as I can.” Well, here’s another example. Defining a burden, Jeremiah, chapter 17, verses 21 to 24, says, “Take heed . . . and bear no burden on the sabbath”. Now that’s simple enough. Well, they had to define what a burden was. “When eating, all food picked up at a single time must weigh less than a dried fig.” Boy, you ought to see me on Sunday afternoon, I blew that one. Second point, “When drinking, any drink picked up at one time must weigh less than one swallow of milk.” The Talmud addressed such crucial issues as defining a burden, as whether or not a woman should wear a broach, could a man wear his wooden leg, and could dentures be worn on the sabbath. You see, all of these additions that were just as important as the Old Testament law. Defining travel, you know, the sabbath days journey, you could only go so far. Well, they said you had to limit it to 1,000 yards from your home. That is, you could only walk a thousand yards from where you lived. If you walked 1,001 yards, you were defiled, you had traveled. Well, they came up with this fascinating thing to do, “yet if a rope is tied, before sundown on Friday, across the end of the street, the whole street becomes one house.” In other words, if you took a rope and you tied it from your doorknob to somebody’s doorknob way down at the end of the street, then all of that would be considered simply one step and then you could go 1,000 yards beyond the end of that rope. This is important stuff.
Well, it is in this climate that John the Baptist comes along and begins to prepare the way for the coming Christ. And he says, “Listen, you have missed it.” And he begins to try to wake them up. There were three groups, the Essenes, they were the isolationists. They were the ones that ran to Qumran, where they lived in caves. Because they believed it was wrong to marry, they soon died out. Sadducees were the liberals, they denied any supernatural element of the Bible. And then the Pharisees would be called the Moderates or the Legalists. And so during these 400 silent years, you see what has evolved. The machinations of men and the legalism and all of that. You see, ladies and gentlemen, these people did not reject Jesus Christ because He broke the law. You remember, they were always accusing Him. He fulfilled the Mosaic Law. They rejected Him because He did not keep the Talmud and the writings of the Mishnah.
I want you to notice his appearance, verse 6 makes it even stranger. “And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey”. This man’s entire life was a protest. Everything that he did, the way that he looked. I just imagine that he probably looked like Elijah. You know, I Kings says that Elijah was a hairy man. I just imagine, John the Baptist, he’s lived in the wilderness, called the Jeshimon, the devastation, out there in the barrenness. And the wind probably dried his hair and he had a full beard. I imagine he had as much hair on his arms and his legs as a, I don’t know a, St. Bernard or something like that. I just picture, you’ve got to understand, you’re paying me to sit in my study and think these strange thoughts and I come up with some strange ones. He is the kind of burley man, I think, that never pulled any punches. John the Baptizer stepped on the scene and he was wearing this camel, this outfit made out of woven camel hair, probably short without any sleeves. His skin was as tough as leather because of the desert sun that continuously beat down on him. He was strange looking. The kind of man that I just imagine who would probably go out hunting, you know, there in the desert for a grizzly with a baseball bat. That’s all he needed, “Just let me at him.” He comes in on the scene and he’s ready to make changes. And he NEVER minces words with these Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees, and the common people. And notice, he’s got as strange an appetite as some of you, from what I understand. He did eat locusts and wild honey. You know, we’ve studied some strange people with strange appetites, mashed peas, you know, some of you told me you like cauliflower. I just want to add to that list, french fried locusts. Just as strange! That’s what he ate. Imagine him at the campfire sitting down with a skillet, all alone, frying locusts and then dipping them in honey and eating them. Strange man. But you know what, I want you to understand and you ought to jot down in your notes, that he did not aim at uniqueness. He did not aim at uniqueness, he aimed at obedience. His life was not determined to just be strange. He was doing what he wanted to do for the cause and glory of Christ. And so he was aiming at obedience.
Now, in the life of a spokesman like this and, by the way, the masses loved him, the masses came to him. In the life of a man like this, I think he would face the same three temptations that you and I are going to face as leaders in the home or at work or wherever it is. And I want to give you three temptations that I think he faced and avoided. The first one would be the temptation of emphasizing personal importance. Emphasizing personal importance, look at verse 7, “And” - he - “preached, saying, ‘There cometh one’” - underline the phrase - “mightier than I” - more powerful than I. You see, they looked at John with unbelievable reverence. He was so different. I mean, his lifestyle convicted their indulgences. And yet, rather than take the glory for the mighty things that he was doing and the mighty man that he was considered to be, he said, “There cometh one mightier than I”.
Secondly, a temptation would be of concealing personal weakness. Concealing personal weakness, look at what it says, verse 7, “There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.” You’re well aware, in that day, that it was the job of the servant to unloose the sandals of the guests and then bathe their feet. When it rained, there would be rivers of mud in the streets. And when it was hot, there would be mounds of dust. And people would arrive at a home with filthy feet and it would be the servant’s job to stoop and unlatch the sandals. John says, “I am not even worthy. I don’t even match that of a servant. I am less than a servant. I’m not worthy to unlatch His sandals.” He was not one to conceal his personal weakness. He let everybody know that he was human. He wouldn’t be allowed to be put on a pedestal.
Then the third, I think, temptation that he avoided would be that of magnifying personal achievement. He says in verse 8, “I indeed have baptized you with water; but He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” You see, “but He shall baptize you”. “I’ve done what I’ve done and it’s been obedience. Oh, but He will do much more.” Rather than magnify personal achievement. You know, John, chapter 3, verse 30, was the secret of John the Baptist’s life. You know the phrase, “He must increase,” - John said - “but I must decrease.” Williams translates it, “He must grow greater and greater and greater and I must grow less and less and less.”
I read a story of D. L. Moody who invited all the European pastors to his Northfield, Massachusetts conference. And it was the custom in Europe, evidently, when you were staying in a public place to leave your shoes outside the door. During the night, the hall servants would come by and polish the shoes and return them back to the door. Well, D. L. Moody was walking down the hallway of the dormitory late that night and he saw, out in the hallway, all these sets of shoes. And he realized these men didn’t know that there were no hall servants in America. And rather than embarrass them, he gathered all the shoes together, took them to a room and then he went down the hallway to some of the American pastors and told them the story and invited them to help him. They all gave pious excuses. And so he went back to the room, by himself, and began to polish all of those shoes by himself. The story would have never gotten out but someone unexpectedly came to the room and noticed what he was doing and sat down and helped him and then told some other people. And then, every night of that conference, different men would gather those shoes together and polish them. Pastors, leaders, men who would be willing to live as normal human beings. That was John the Baptist. That was humility.
By way of application, in closing, let me give you some needed similarities between the life of John the Baptizer and you and me. Why was he making an impact on his world? What was it about his life that made a difference? What is it in his life that we should seek to have in our lives? Not imitating him but emulating the character. Three things, many more, but let me give you three. First of all, he lived what he said. He lived what he said. He said, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. And no one could point a finger at him and say, “Ah, but YOU’RE not doing it. You’re telling me to do something that, John, you’re not doing yourself.” He lived what he said. You know, I think of you and me, “I’m a Christian, I know Christ,” but do we live that way? Do we live in such a way that people cannot point their finger at us and say, “Ah, you say you know Christ but I don’t see it”? And John would come to the Pharisees and he would say, “Listen, I want to see the fruit of your repentance. I want to see proof.” Is there proof in my life? Is there proof in your life that you belong to Christ? There is a difference, ladies and gentlemen, between outward morality and true righteousness and John had it.
Number two, he was completely humble. Completely humble. He reminded me of the apostle Paul. You know, the apostle Paul said, in the early part of his ministry, in I Corinthians, chapter 15, he said, “I am the least of the apostles”. Do you remember that phrase? You see, Paul whittled it down, he said, “Out of these twelve men who are leaders, the apostles, I come in last place.” That was a humble statement. That said a lot. But as Paul lived the Christian life, he would say later in Ephesians, chapter 3, he would say, “I” - “am less than the least of all saints”. You see, it’s now, not just twelve men, it’s the whole Christian world, “I come in last place.” And then, at the end of his life, in I Timothy, he writes to his son in the faith, Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” You know, I wonder if that’s the progression in my life. I look around these chairs, “Yea, all of these Christians here, I come in last. But the entire Christian world, I’m the least. And in the entire world, of all of the sinners, even though I’m forgiven, I am foremost, I’m chief.”
Thirdly, he pointed others to Jesus Christ. You know, when you get on the phone and you call long-distance and you use the operator. You tell her what you want to do and she says, “If you will hold please, I will connect you.” The ministry of John the Baptist was one of merely connecting people with the Lamb of God. He was the go-between. Now, when she connects you, she gets out of the way and she’s gone. She doesn’t listen, she doesn’t linger, she disconnects herself. You know, in your life and in mine, if we ever hope to make an impact, we need to be the connector between people who do not know Jesus Christ and the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world. And as we bring them together, then we ought to go back stage or take a secondary role because Jesus comes first.
Charles Spurgeon, one of the great leaders of a century ago, was a brilliant man and yet, very humble. In fact, as he lay on the bed, that would become his death bed, there were several men, in the ministry, around his bed. He said to them, this man was a tremendous mind, but he said, “Men, the older I get and the closer I get to heaven, the simpler my theology becomes. It is now just this simple, Jesus loves me.”
You know, I am so glad that there was a John the Baptist in my life. I’m so glad that Jesus Christ has given me the opportunity of being John the Baptist in someone else’s life. But I can fail, and I do fail, unless I am pointing people to Him, unless I am living humbly, unless I am directing their attention to the One who is greater than I.
Have you been delivered? Have you accepted the message of repentance and given your life to the Lamb of God, who wants to take away your sin as He did mine?