When we hear about John the Baptist, probably the first thing we think of is how he looked. We may picture a rough looking fellow with crazy hair, yelling at people, dunking others, and eating grasshoppers in between. While some of this may be true, it is more beneficial to look not only at the man, but his message as well. The gospel of Mark helps us do this, and by these words of Scripture, we not only learn about the man and his message, we also learn from John some lessons on ministry.
Ordinary Despite Being Extraordinary
John’s dress identifies him as a man, the long awaited messenger, but his diet shows us something more. Look what Mark 1: 6 says. “John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey.” His diet was, needless to say, meager; he ate what was available to him. But we need to see that in his daily life, no matter in what condition, John knew the importance of following the commands of God. In Leviticus 11:22-23, the Mosaic Law states,
Yet these you may eat among all the winged insects which walk on all fours: those which have above their feet jointed legs with which to jump on the earth. These of them you may eat: the locust in its kinds, and the devastating locust in its kinds, and the cricket in its kinds, and the grasshopper in its kinds. But all other winged insects which are four-footed are detestable to you.
It didn’t say they had to eat these insects. It merely says they could eat them. When John the Baptist came forth preaching repentance, forgiveness of sins, and baptism, he did not look like the religious establishment. The Pharisees most likely wore finer clothes than most to draw attention to themselves and to separate themselves from the populace. John didn’t look like them. But he did have a distinct look as we read in verse six.
A camel’s hair garment was not very comfortable, and definitely not fashionable, but it was rugged and would hold up in that environment. For those who lived in the wilderness, this was typical clothing. He wasn’t trying to separate himself from those in the area, on the contrary, he was identifying with them. By his clothing, he looked like any other person. He did not see himself as above them.
He knew the prophecies concerning him. Without a doubt his father and mother shared with him the event of the angel’s appearance and pronouncement about him. He knew his birth was miraculous. He was told, perhaps many times, he was special. But he did not parade himself as such. He dressed in an ordinary way. He wore what was practical, and I believe he did this because he knew he was not special in and of himself. He was special because he had a special task—the task of being the forerunner of the Messiah.
Do you think John ever had days when he got hungry, unable to find enough food out in the wilderness? Wouldn’t it be very tempting if you were so hungry and you found something to eat, to forget about the Law of God–just go ahead and eat, then ask for forgiveness later? Wouldn’t it be tempting to justify your behavior, to participate in a little situational ethics? It would, wouldn’t it?
I’m sure John was tempted to do those very things. But we find his diet consisted of what the Law said he could eat. John sought after righteousness, desiring to live rightly before God even though doing so came at a cost.
Could we say the same about ourselves? Or do we strive for comfort and contentment more than we do a clear conscience? Do we strive to follow His Word and His ways, or do we find them a little too hard to bear? Do we stand firm in our faith, or do we find ourselves justifying our actions due to the situation in which we find ourselves? Shouldn’t we be like John the Baptist—following the standards of God no matter the place, time, or circumstance?
Understood His Time of Ministry
John was “preaching and saying.” This was not something he was telling in secret. This was something he was proclaiming openly to all. Notice the first statement of this proclamation: “After me One is coming who is mightier than I”, verse 7. What can we learn about John’s mentality, his idea concerning himself and the promised One?
First, I think we can see that John knew his ministry was framed by time. Notice that he says, “After me.” His ministry had a beginning, and it was going to have an end. That’s a big reality check for many people. I’m sure most preachers think they are going to go on and on, and their legacies will endure. But you know that’s probably not going to happen. Sure, some people will be remembered for a time, but when they pass on, the memory goes with them.
When I was a pastor, I realized my days were numbered, and because of that I needed to do what needed to be done in the time I had. I needed to focus on the people God had entrusted to me. But this concept of doing what you can now and knowing your time will come to an end does not only apply to preachers. It applies to every believer. If you are a believer, you have a ministry. You are involved in Christian service in some way—whether it be in a church or at your home, school, and neighborhood.
You need to realize that your days are numbered. What are you going to do with the time God has given you? Not only did John recognize his ministry would one day end, but he constantly pointed to someone besides himself. With this, we see his ministry was one of humility.
“After me One is coming.” For John, it was never about himself, his ministry, or his legacy. It was always about Christ. He did not dwell on his ability to draw a crowd. When the crowds came, he pointed them to the One they really needed.
In my younger years, I wanted to be the best preacher I could be. I still do. But you see, the problem back then was that I didn’t just want to be the best preacher I could be—I wanted to be the best. I looked at it as a competition. Back when I was in school, I thought of preaching as simply a skill or an art which needed to be refined. It is this, but it is so much more. It is proclaiming the Word of God, exhorting the believers, and calling the unbelievers to repentance. While I may have done those things, my ultimate goal was wrong. I wanted to improve for me. I wanted to impress rather than proclaim.
Sadly, this attitude does not just reside in preachers, but in the congregation as well. Some look at preaching as a means of entertainment, a way of stirring their emotions instead of feeding their souls. We live in a society where the respect some have for certain preachers rivals their reverence for Christ. John the Baptist knew the reason for his preaching. He was preaching for the One to come. He recognized this One’s might, and at the same time he recognized his own weakness. John did not have his eyes on himself; he had them on the Messiah.
John was considered a mighty man of God, but notice what he says concerning the might of the One to come. “I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals (1:7).” To untie the sandals of someone was a menial task—a task a slave would perform, but one that a Hebrew slave was not required to do.
In this one statement, John emphasizes the dignity and the majesty of the coming One while at the same time recognizing his own unworthiness. This is a humble declaration. It is this attitude, this view of ourselves, which we must possess.
I know we live in a society which strongly holds to the concept of self-esteem, but as believers we need to have Christ-esteem. We are not worthy of Him, and we can never be good enough for Him. We cannot work to improve ourselves to a point where He sees our worth. Although made in His image, apart from Him we are lowly, corrupt, enemies of God, and dead in our trespasses and sins. Yet, the One who came after John, the One for whom we are unfit to serve in the lowliest of ways, this One came to die for us, to clothe us in His righteousness in order that we would serve Him, reign with Him, and glorify Him. He exalts the lowly by bringing them to Himself.
But there is something else in this statement concerning untying His sandals. John’s ministry was to prepare the way of the Lord. He was the voice crying in the wilderness. The One to come was divine in nature. In Malachi 3:1, God says, “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me.” Mark quotes this verse (1:2) as, “Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way.” In Malachi, God uses the Word “Me.” In Mark the words “You” and “Your” are used. This shows that the One to come was divine, equal with God, and God Himself. So we know the Messiah, the Lord, is God.
The divinity of Jesus is clearly stated here. But John has just said, “I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals.” Sandals are things a man would wear. So what does this tell us? It tells us the One to come would not only be divine, would be God, but the One to come would be human. Here in the first few verses of Mark we have the description of Jesus—the God-Man—fully God and fully man. While John did not know the identity of the One to come, he knew he would be God, thus mightier than him. He would not be worthy of Him because of His divinity, but he also knew the One to come, the Lord, would be a man.
In verse 8 John the Baptist states, “I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Once again we see John referencing the superiority of the One to come to. John baptized with water. This is the outward sign of the inward result of repentance. This is the public confession of a believer. Baptism does not cleanse anyone from their sins—it never has and it never will (otherwise we are adding a work to our faith, and therefore adding to the sacrifice of Christ). It was a public statement.
Now, one thing we need to understand is the method of baptism. It isn’t just about technicalities; it deals with doctrine. The mode of baptism was immersion. It was a dunking, a plunging. It was not just sprinkling of water or pouring water over the head. The word “baptize” means to immerse, to plunge under. John baptized with water, but the One to come, He would baptize them “with the Holy Spirit.”
He would not simply immerse them in water; He would immerse them into the presence of God. He would not sprinkle God’s presence, nor would He pour a little of the Spirit upon them. He would plunge them, fully immerse them, completely cover them in God’s grace, his purifying righteousness, and by doing so He would purge them of their sins.
The theological implication is this: when you come to Christ, you do not receive a little of Him, you receive all of Him. There’s nothing more you can receive. Think about it, if you have ever been in a pool and you have submerged yourself, you are not going to get any wetter. It doesn’t matter if it rains or someone pours more water on you—you’ve already been immersed.
This is salvation through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is coming by faith to Christ in salvation, and when this happens, you are fully placed in His presence and surrounded by His grace and forgiveness. You are placed into union with Christ and into union with other believers in the Body of Christ. This is what it is for us, but I want you to see that John saw this as something in the future. It was yet to come. Notice what he said. He states what he did—“I baptized.” Then, the One coming “will baptize.” This was anticipated, and what we learn in Scripture is that this baptism is in reference to the New Covenant.
The New Covenant is described in Ezekiel 36:25-27 this way—“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” Through the New Covenant we have baptism in the Spirit, and this was demonstrated very publicly at Pentecost. And, just to note this again, who could possibly baptize people into the Holy Spirit unless that person was God?
This was John the Baptist, but who are you, and who will you be? Will you be the one who is among the people and yet points their attention to Christ? Will you be the one who is cognizant of God’s statutes and lives by them? Will you think lowly of yourself and highly of Christ? Will you point people to Him? You may not be the voice in the wilderness, but you can be a voice for Christ wherever you are.