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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
Title:Making the Way Ready
Text:Mark 1:1-8 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God The Son

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 118:1-3
Hymn 7:9
Psalm 80:1-3, 8
Hymn 11
Psalm 138

Reading: Mark 1:1-8
Text: Mark 1:1-8
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Many of us enjoy Saturday as a day to sleep in. I think that’s probably especially true for the young people. When you’re young, it sometimes seems like you can sleep forever. Until somebody comes along with some cold water to splash on your face. You’re sound asleep and then mom or dad, maybe a brother or sister, comes silently into your room with the coldest water they can find.

What happens in our text is a lot like that experience. John and his ministry was God’s cold water splashed on his people’s face to wake them up. Prophecy was rare – it seemed that, for the most part, prophecy had fallen silent. Among the people there were some, like Simeon and Anna (a prophetess), who were eagerly waiting for the Messiah. But many others had fallen asleep. There was little sensitivity to or longing for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Instead, the focus of many was on the here and now – the land and the people were under the dominion of Rome and its puppets. The burning issue was: how can we be saved from Rome? Into this context John came with his preaching and his baptism.

As his ministry is presented in Mark, John came to announce the coming of salvation. The first verse of our text serves as a kind of title for the book. We’re told that this is the beginning of the good news of the Christ, the Son of God. Mark chooses to begin telling this story of the good news of salvation by highlighting John’s ministry, a ministry that was foretold in the Old Testament. In passages like Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3, we find that there was a prophetic expectation of a forerunner. John was this forerunner who would make the way ready for the Messiah. He was the one who would splash cold water on Israel’s face to get them ready for the Christ.

Significantly, he did this in the desert and at the Jordan River. There was a message in this. Israel had to pass through the desert and the Jordan River to reach the Promised Land. The desert and the Jordan River were preparations or steps along the way to the greatest salvation event in the Old Testament. So, it was fitting for John to be out in the desert, out in the middle of the Jordan River, splashing cold water on Israel’s face to wake them up. Telling them again that their salvation was at hand and to get ready for it. So this afternoon we hear God’s Word preached with the theme,

John made the way ready for the Lord Jesus

In his ministry we hear a call to:

  1. Repentance
  2. Prophecy
  3. Awareness

1. In his ministry we hear a call to repentance.

Verse 4 tells us that John was preaching. He was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is typical, Mark packs a lot into these few words. We need to unpack these words if we want to really understand what John was preaching.

First of all, we need to consider the place of baptism in the old covenant. Many times we think that baptism is just something that came about in the New Testament era. However, baptism also existed in the Old Testament. Baptism in the Old Testament time was something for Gentiles. If a non-Jew wanted to become part of God’s people, there were three things required: circumcision for the men, baptism, and then sacrificial offerings. People who were Jews by birth were never baptized. Baptism was something of a ritual cleansing for Gentiles. This was not explicitly commanded in the Old Testament Scriptures, rather it was one of those extra-Biblical practices that the Jews had introduced in the centuries before Christ’s incarnation.

So, the fact is John was not introducing something totally foreign. The Jews would recognize baptism as part of their religious life. What was new was the fact that they had to be baptized! John was saying that the people of God had become unclean. They were dirty and in need of washing. They had become no different than the Gentiles. And in such a condition, they would certainly not recognize or listen to the voice of God’s Anointed One, his Messiah, his Christ. And so, for a Jew to let himself be baptized by John – that would be quite a step. Being baptized by John would be the same as saying, “I need to be cleansed. I am dirty and sinful. I am no different than the Gentiles.” Really what this amounted to was a humbling before God.

John preached that the Jews had to receive this baptism. Mark characterizes it as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A baptism of repentance. What does that mean? Well, it’s a baptism associated with repentance. If the Jews were repentant, then this was the baptism for them. To be clear, we should briefly consider what repentance really means. The New Testament word for repent is metanoeo [pronounced ‘metah-no-eh-o’]. Literally that word means to have a change of mind. To have a change of attitude or thinking. In this particular instance, the Jews had to have a change of mind about a number of things. They had been wrong about their hopes and expectations. They had hoped for political deliverance from Rome where they should have been focussing on the Messianic hope. They had been wrong about themselves. They had pridefully developed all kinds of rules and laws which obscured the true meaning and focus of Scripture – the coming Messiah. They had been wrong about God. They thought that God was pleased with external works of the law. That it was possible to earn God’s favour by good works. In these and so many other ways, their thinking and acting were out of line. And at the root of it all was pride. For them, the bottom line of repentance was to humble themselves and take the baptism of John as the expression of that humility.

Now it is worth noting that this repentance is said to be “for the forgiveness of sins.” This could be understood as saying that the people would have their sins forgiven only if they would repent and receive John’s baptism. We find this passage in the New Testament, but we quickly forget that this is still in the Old Testament era. In the Old Testament era, the forgiveness of sins was associated with the sacrificial system. Because of its connection with the coming Christ, the sacrificial system was the way in which sins were forgiven in the Old Testament. So, does John’s baptism represent a shift in this respect? Are we to think that there were two different ways to have your sins forgiven? That you could choose to either make sacrifices or repent and have the baptism of John? No. Keep in mind that Mark is very brief. He doesn’t tell us everything that was said and done by John or those who listened to his preaching. Keep in mind also that we’re speaking here about God’s people. If they were truly repentant, they would have turned their backs on self-willed worship. The truly repentant would have offered sacrifices and thereby received the forgiveness of their sins. See, John was not offering a new way of salvation and forgiveness. He was directing people back to God and his ways. He was directing people back to the Scriptures that pointed to Christ.

In this way, John was making the people ready for the ministry of Christ himself. Having humbled themselves and undergone something of a reformation, the Jews would be more likely to listen to the preaching of the Messiah. And this is indeed what we see happening, if only in a small measure throughout Mark’s gospel.

And what does this mean for us? Let’s reflect for a moment. Are there ways in which we, like the Jews of John’s day, have missed the boat? Are there ways in which we, God’s people today, need to have cold water splashed on our face to wake us up? In our church and in our personal lives, where are we sleeping and missing what’s most important? Brothers and sisters, one of our greatest dangers today is that we are so comfortable in church and society. We don’t really have to fight for anything. So much is just given to us. It’s often said that the devil loves conflict, but peace and tranquility can also be his playground. The kind of peace we experience now in church and society can be a time for spiritual growth. But it can also be a time where many of us fall asleep spiritually. We take things for granted. We become nominal or cultural Christians. The church is our circle of family and friends, but not much more. Where might we today as church and as individuals have to repent and wake up to be the people God calls us to be? Something to think about.

Let’s move on from here and consider the prophetic element in John’s ministry.

2. In John’s ministry we hear a call to prophecy.

We’ve already noted that this text takes place in the Old Testament era. In fact, we can take this a step further and we can say that John is the last of the Old Testament prophets. Mark and the other gospel writers say as much when they tell us that John was wearing clothing made of camel’s hair and that he had a leather belt around his waist. 2 Kings 1:8 gives a similar description of the prophet Elijah. And in John’s gospel, after hearing that John wasn’t the Messiah, the first person the Jews thought of was Elijah. John very clearly had a prophetic appearance to him. John was a prophet.

In the Old Testament, prophets were sent by God to reveal his will and to teach the people. We often forget that prophecy is not in the first place like some kind of divine fortune telling. Sometimes prophecy had something of that character, but most often prophecy in the Old Testament was about change and challenge. God would speak through a prophet in an effort to teach his people something valuable. Sometimes the message had to do with judgment. When the people were comfortable, God would try and shake them up with a prophetic message. Sometimes the message had to do with comfort and salvation. When the people were suffering, God would come with words of encouragement and hope.

Both aspects are seen in the total picture we get of John’s ministry in the gospels. John came to preach both judgment and salvation. But in Mark’s gospel, the Holy Spirit really emphasizes the salvation aspect of John’s prophetic ministry. We’re told that John’s ministry had to do with the forgiveness of sins (verse 4). We’re told that large numbers of people from Judea and Jerusalem flocked to John . We’re told that they confessed their sins and were baptized (verse 5). In Mark, the Holy Spirit does not tell us about the back and forth between John and the Pharisees – something we read about in John. And we don’t read about the winnowing fork and the unquenchable fire, or broods of vipers, or an ax being laid to the root of the tree – we read about those things in Matthew. No, Mark has a different emphasis, an emphasis on a prophetic proclamation of salvation for the people.

John’s message, as reported by Mark, was that the Messiah was at the threshold. He had not quite entered in, but he was nearly here. This was the promised Anointed One who would crush the head of the serpent. This was the one who would fulfill all the promises of God’s covenant. This was the one who was foreshadowed by all the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Mosaic law. He was almost here. Standing in the desert, in the Jordan River, John proclaimed that the Christ was here to bring the people into the Promised Land of God’s rest. The whole purpose of John’s ministry was to get people ready for the big day when the Christ would come on the stage.

John is described in the original of 1:7 as a herald. Literally, the Greek says, “And he heralded, saying…” A herald had a special job in the ancient world. A herald was a messenger who worked for the King. He would be sent to announce good news on behalf of the King. So, in the first chapter of Mark, John is such a herald. He is announcing good news on behalf of the King. His message was the King’s message of good news.

And the good news was that the King himself was coming. The Anointed One of God who had more power than anyone who had come before. The One to whom John paled in comparison, the one with whom John didn’t even feel worthy to take on the most menial of tasks – untying the thongs of his sandals. This prophecy was good news for God’s people and it was proclaimed with the hope that they would prepare themselves for his arrival. When you know the King is coming, you naturally get ready.

When Christ appeared on the stage, then indeed John faded away. John the prophet’s work was done. Christ the King took over. And Christ the King was also anointed Christ the Prophet. However, as time moved on, Christ appointed under-prophets. After he ascended into heaven, Christ continued his prophetic ministry through the apostles and through others. We today are among the others. We share in his anointing. We too are prophets. As such, we’re called to speak boldly and winsomely of the coming of the King. We’re to prophesy that he has come once for salvation. We’re to prophesy that he will come again for salvation. To whom shall we prophesy? We naturally think of others we might know who aren’t believers and they’re definitely included. But today, let’s take our cue from what we read in our text. John was not a missionary preacher in the sense that he was sent out to the nations who had never heard the gospel. John was a prophet within the nation of Israel. He worked primarily among the people who had been taught the Scriptures, however inconsistent that teaching might have been. John was not working among the Gentiles, but among the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

So, let’s take our cue from that. Following the lines of our text, our prophetic task begins here among the people of God. We’re to encourage one another to wake up to the fact that Christ has come once for salvation. We’re to encourage one another to wake up to the reality that Christ will come again for the fulness of our redemption. We’re going to do this as peers, as brothers and sisters with one another through Bible Studies and so on. But I especially want to mention how this takes place through our families. Some people seem to have the idea that the spiritual instruction of children is primarily the responsibility of the church and the school. In other words, our children primarily get their spiritual nourishment through the pastors and through school teachers, and perhaps others as well. Brothers and sisters, when it comes to our children, the first line of prophecy is not the pastor or the teacher or anybody else, but the parents, especially the fathers. Over and over again you read in Scripture how parents are primarily responsible for the spiritual development of their children. The best place to facilitate this development is during regular daily family worship. Now it’s not my intention to go into the ins and outs of family worship. Let it suffice to say that if we desire to see our children (God’s children really) serving him in a meaningful way, we need to be serious about family worship. Families these days are busy, but then we need to become creative and find ways to get around our busy-ness. We need to find ways to comprehensively teach and disciple our children so that they in turn will disciple their children and others. The issue comes down to our priorities in life. Who or what is most important to us? The Christ who has come and will come again? Or someone or something else? What message do we as prophets want to communicate to each other, especially to our children?

Let’s now briefly consider the call to awareness in John’s ministry.

3. In his ministry we hear a call to awareness.

As I already mentioned, John’s ministry was a wake-up call. Like all wake-up calls, this one had to do with the time. John knew what time it was. The people of Israel didn’t. John knew that the time for the Messiah had come. The people didn’t. So, his task was to let them know that now was the time. He had to make them aware of where they were living in redemptive history.

They were living on the threshold of the greatest moment in human history. They were living at the close of the Old Testament era and the beginning of the New Testament. In a short three years, the Old Testament sacrificial system would be fulfilled. The curtain of the temple would be torn, symbolizing the fact that God was done with the temple. What an incredible time to be alive!

Three years. A very short period of time. Many of those who heard John’s preaching would have lived to see his prophecy in verse 8 fulfilled. “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In three short years, many of those people would have been present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples. That was the baptism John was speaking of. Those who had believed would have looked back on this with amazement. John said it and it happened. I’m sure that many of them would have saw it as a privilege to live during this eventful time.

But now there’s us. We live 2000 years later. We live after Christ’s ascension. We live after Pentecost. We live before his second coming. The tendency is there for us to lose the awareness of where we are in redemptive history. The tendency is there for us to forget about our privileges. A thousands-of-years-old book tells us all this and we may become a bit dull to it.

Are we aware of where we are in history? Do we really believe that Christ’s return could happen at any moment, ushering in the age to come? And do we live like we believe that? Do we reflect with thankfulness on the privileges we have from living at this moment? Think about it. We have a completed Bible. The fact that all of us can own so many Bibles – the fact that we can read those Bibles – those facts would have astounded believers living just a few centuries ago. Not only that, we live with the Holy Spirit poured out in our hearts, the almighty God dwelling with us. Do you ever reflect on that? Or more often do you take that for granted? If you’re like me, it’s more likely the latter. Take a moment some time yet today and just say it slowly and reflect on it, “I have been baptized with the Holy Spirit.” What does that mean for you? We’re so rich and so privileged. We should be so thankful.

Brothers and sisters, we need the awareness of where we are in history and who we are. Naturally, we don’t know when the Saviour will come again. But our text encourages us to keep our eyes open. Stay awake! The Lord Jesus has come. He will come again – with power and with salvation. AMEN.

Questions for Further Reflection and Discussion

(these can be placed in your liturgy sheet or church bulletin)

  1. Compare 2 Kings 1:8 with our text. Why does Mark give us a description of John’s appearance?
  2. What was the meaning of baptism for Old Testament Israel?
  3. Was there any significance to the location of John’s baptism? If so, what was it?
  4. How should we regard someone today who claims to baptize as John did?

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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