We began to study Mark’s gospel on the Sunday before Easter when we spent our time going word by word through the first verse. And so, there’s the word ‘gospel’; and we thought about how the gospel is good news about what God has done for sinners like us to save us from the condemnation we deserve for our sins.
Then there’s the name ‘Jesus’; and we thought about how this is a name which should comfort our anxious soul and which should soothe our troubled conscience and which should re-assure us of God’s love, because here’s a name which means ‘Saviour’; Jesus is the only one who can save us from the condemnation we deserve and who can give us the free gift of eternal life.
And then there’s the word ‘Christ’ which means ‘anointed’; and the Lord Jesus was anointed with God’s Spirit so that he could serve God as our prophet, priest and king. As our prophet, he teaches us about God’s willingness to pardon sinners. As our priest, he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to take away our guilt. As our king, he delivers us from Satan’s tyranny and he calls us into his kingdom and he protects us from all his enemies. He was anointed by the Holy Spirit in order that he might do all that was necessary to save us and to give us eternal life.
And then, there were the words ‘Son of God’, because Jesus Christ is God’s one and only Son, who came into the world to save his people, as he said he would do.
So, that’s what we were thinking about the last time. In verse 1, Mark announced the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God is found in verses 2 to 13 of chapter 1, because here we read about John the Baptist, who was this voice, calling in the wilderness, summoning his contemporaries to prepare for the coming of the Lord. And then the Lord Jesus Christ appeared and he was baptised by John in the Jordan and anointed by the Holy Spirit. And then he was sent out into the wilderness where the Devil tempted him, and wild beasts surrounded him, but the angels ministered to him. That’s the beginning of the gospel, because these verses set the scene for everything that follows. Today, we’re going to spend our time on verses 2 to 8 which tell us about John the Baptist; and we’ll come back to the rest of this passage another time.
John the Baptist
And really, to understand the significance of John the Baptist I want you to imagine a person straddling the equator. You know what I mean by the equator: that imaginary line which goes around the world which separates the northern hemisphere from the southern hemisphere. So, imagine someone straddling it, so that she’s got one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other foot in the southern hemisphere. The person who is straddling the equator is in the north and the south at one and the same time.
That’s what John the Baptist is like: not in terms of geography and where he’s standing, but in terms of time. You see, he’s got one foot in Old Testament times and one foot in New Testament times; one foot in the Old Testament era and the other foot in the New Testament era. He’s straddling the Testaments.
Why do I say that? He’s clearly got one foot in the New Testament era, because here he is, in the Gospel of Mark, which is part of the New Testament. And we read about John the Baptist in the other gospels as well. You don’t read about him in the book of Genesis, or in the book of Psalms, or in the book of Isaiah or in any of the other Old Testament books. He appears in the New Testament; and so he’s got one foot planted firmly in the New Testament.
Old Testament 1
However, he really belongs to the Old Testament. He’s really the last of the Old Testament prophets. Why do I say that? Well, look at the description of his clothes in verse 6 where it tells us that he wore clothing made of camel’s hair and he had a leather belt around his waist. Well, that almost perfectly matches the description of Elijah the prophet which we have in 1 Kings 1:8, where it says Elijah was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist. So, John the Baptist looked like an Old Testament prophet. When the crowds went out to see him, it would have been clear to them from just his appearance that this man was like the prophets of old.
Old Testament 2
But, of course, it’s not just his appearance that tells us he belongs to the Old Testament. There was his message as well.
Think of the Old Testament prophets and their message. There were two main themes. First of all, the Old Testament prophets were sent by God to point out to the people their sin and their need to repent. For instance, think of the prophet Hosea. The Lord said to him, right at the beginning of his book:
Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.
The Lord told Hosea to marry a woman who would be unfaithful to him, because he wanted Hosea’s marriage to be a visual aid to show the Israelites how they had been unfaithful to him. He was to point out their sin.
Or think of the prophet Amos. What was his message? Well, in Amos 6:1 we get a taste of his message, because in Amos 6:1 the Lord said:
Woe to you who are complacent in Zion….
Woe to you, because you’re sinners who sin continually against the Lord. So, repent!
Let me give one more example, this time from the prophet Malachi who wrote in Malachi 2:11:
Judah has broken faith. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves.
Do you see? The Old Testament prophets were sent by the Lord to point out to the people their sins and their need to repent.
And what do we find John the Baptist doing? Well, according to verse 4 he came, baptising in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His message was about how they needed to repent and how they needed God’s forgiveness for their sins; and baptism was a sign to them of how God was willing to wash away the guilt of their sins if only they repent.
Old Testament 3
But the Old prophets were sent by God not only to point out to the people their sin and their need to repent, but also to tell them about the coming of the Lord’s Special Servant. The Old Testament prophets taught the people to look forward in faith to the time when God would send the Saviour. This was the second theme of their message.
So, go back to one of the first prophets: Moses. In Deuteronomy 18 the Lord spoke to him about how he would one day raise up for his people a prophet like Moses; and God will put his words in his mouth and this great prophet will teach the people everything God commands. So, Moses taught the people to look forward to the coming of a greater prophet than himself.
Or think of Isaiah who announced the coming of that child who will be called Wonderful Counsellor and Mighty God and Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. Or think of how he spoke about the Suffering Servant of the Lord who would be wounded for our transgressions.
Or think of Micah who spoke in Micah 5 of the great ruler who would come from Bethlehem. The Old Testament prophets were sent by God not only to point out to the people their sin and their need to repent, but also to tell them about the coming of the Lord’s Special Servant.
And that’s what John the Baptist did as well. Look at what we read in verses 2 and 3, which contain three quotations from the Old Testament and which tell us how God was going to send a messenger — and, of course, the messenger is John the Baptist — whose role would be to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord Jesus. Just as the Old Testament prophets told the people about the one who was to come, so John the Baptist was to tell the people about the one who was to come. And we see this even more clearly in verse 7: the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John in the wilderness; they confessed their sins; they were baptised by him; and this was his message to them:
After me will come one more powerful than I….
They were all coming to see John, but John’s message to them was to prepare for the one who was to come. Like the Old Testament prophets before him, John’s role was to tell the people about the Lord’s Special Servant who was coming.
God’s Special Servant
But here’s the thing: what was special about this Special Servant? What made him so special? Well, according to John in verse 8, the thing that made this Special Servant special was the fact that he was able to baptise people with the Holy Spirit. Do you see that in verse 8?
I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.
What’s so special about that? Let me take a bit of time to explain, though this will be familiar to you if you’ve been coming on Sunday evenings and if you’ve heard me preach on the book of Exodus. You see, in the days of the Old Testament, God made a covenant with his people at Mount Sinai. In other words, he entered into a special relationship with them. We read about it in Exodus 19 where it tells us how the Lord reminded the people of how he had rescued them from Egypt. Then he said to them:
If you obey me fully and keep the terms of my covenant, then you will be my treasured possession.
He was saying to them: If you obey me, you’ll be my special people and I’ll watch over you and protect you and bless you.
And the people replied:
We will do everything the Lord has said.
They were saying: We promise to obey him.
But what happened? Over the years, the people continually disobeyed the Lord. Although they promised to obey him and to keep the terms of the covenant, they kept disobeying him and they were unfaithful to him. They broke the covenant which the Lord had made with them.
So, what was the Lord going to do? He could have destroyed them. He could have abandoned them. But instead of doing either of those things, the Lord — who loved them and was committed to them — announced to them that he would one day make a new covenant with them. And this is what he said to them through the prophet Jeremiah:
The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant…. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel at that time, declares the Lord. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.
There are two points to notice here. Firstly, under the old covenant, the law was written on stone tablets, which God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai. But under the new covenant, the law will be written on our hearts.
Secondly, under the new covenant, God promises to forgive our sins and to remember them no more. You see, in the days of the Old Testament, when the people went to the temple to offer sacrifices to God for their sins, what those sacrifices really did was to remind the people that they were sinners who needed forgiveness from God. The sacrifices couldn’t take away their sin, but only reminded the people of their sin, so that they would look forward in faith and hope to the time when God would provide them with the perfect sacrifice for sins to take away their sins for good. And under the new covenant, God promised to do precisely that: to do what was necessary to forgive their sins for good and to remember them no more.
So, that’s what the Lord said through Jeremiah. But he also spoke about this new covenant through the prophet Ezekiel. So, in Ezekiel 36 he said:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Again there are two points to note here. Firstly, under the new covenant, he will give his people a new heart, with a new spirit, so that they’ll want to obey him. And secondly, under the new covenant, he’ll put what within his people? He’ll put his Spirit within his people and cause them to walk in his statutes and to be careful to obey his rules.
So, in Old Testament times, the people had the law on stones tablets, but they kept breaking God’s law and they kept disobeying his commandments. And so, God promised that the day was coming when he could make a new covenant with them. And when that day comes, he will forgive their sins. And more than that, he’ll write his laws on their hearts, hearts that have been made new so that they can love him like never before. And he’ll also give his people, like never before, his Spirit to help them to obey the Lord. That’s what I’ll do, the Lord was saying. Just you wait. That day will come. That time is coming.
Announced by John
And look: here comes John the Baptist. And what’s his message? There’s someone coming after me and he’s able to baptise you with the Holy Spirit. In other words, he’s able to give you the Holy Spirit. John was announcing that the old covenant is over; the new covenant is going to start soon. So, God will forgive your sins as he promised; and he’ll write his laws on your heart as he promised; and he’ll give you a new heart as he promised, so that you can love the Lord like never before; and his Special Servant — who is coming after John — will give you his Spirit as he promised to enable you to walk in his ways and to keep his commandments like never before.
So, what happens next in the gospel? Well, in verse 9 we read how the Lord Jesus appeared; and after he was baptised by John, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove. So, he’s the one who possesses the Holy Spirit.
And then, in the book of Acts, after the Lord’s death and resurrection and ascension to heaven, we read how he poured out his Spirit upon his people. So, not only does he possess the Holy Spirit, but he has the right and the authority to give us his Spirit. And whoever receives his Spirit receives the assurance of sins forgiven. And whoever receives his Spirit, has God’s law written on their hearts. And whoever receives his Spirit, receives a new heart so that we can love the Lord like never before. And whoever receives the Spirit receives the Spirit’s help to obey the Lord like never before.
And isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that what you want? You want the assurance of sins forgiven, don’t you? You want his law in your heart, don’t you? You want a new heart to love God, don’t you? You want God’s help to obey him, don’t you? Well, John was announcing that the time has come; and Jesus Christ is able to give you all of this. So, you should believe in him, because he’s the only one who can give you his Spirit and all these other things as well.
I hope you understand the special privilege that has been given to us, compared to what was given to the Israelites and to all those who lived in Old Testament times before the coming of John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Those who lived before John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus Christ were given the sacrificial system, but they weren’t given the assurance of sins forgiven. But now, under the terms of the new covenant, the assurance of sins forgiven is given to all of God’s people, because God has promised — for the sake of Christ who died for us — to forgive our sins and to remember them no more. Other people like to remind us of our sins and our failures and our shortcomings. Other people remember what we’ve done wrong and they like to throw it in our face to hurt us. But the Lord God, under the terms of this new covenant, promises to remember our sins no more. During the week, we mess up our lives and do things which are wrong. But then we come into the presence of the Lord in church, and hear again the gospel message, and we’re reminded of God’s willingness to forgive us and to forget what we’re done wrong.
And those who lived before John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus Christ were given the law, but they weren’t given any help to obey it. But now, under the terms of the new covenant, the Lord gives us the Holy Spirit to help us to keep his law and to obey his commandments. And the Lord Jesus Christ, who loved us and who gave us his life for us on the cross to pay for our sins, is willing to give us his Spirit to help us.
And so, we aren’t on our own. Sometimes we think that. We want to obey the Lord, but we imagine we’re on our own, and we have to rely on ourselves and our own strength and determination to do what’s right. But it’s hard, because there are so many temptations; and unbelieving friends and neighbours put pressure on us to do what they’re doing; and, of course, there’s the Devil, and we’re not strong enough to stand up to the Devil by ourselves. We think we’re on our own.
But here’s the thing: we’re not on our own. The Lord Jesus Christ who loved us and gave up his life for us, is able to give us his Spirit to help us. And so, every day, we ought to pray to the Lord for the Spirit’s help to obey him more and more. Every day, we ought to ask God for the help of the Holy Spirit to make us more and more willing and able to walk in his ways and to keep his commandments. Every day, we ought to pray and to ask him to give us his Spirit to help us to resist temptation so that we will not sin against him.
John the Baptist pointed the people to Jesus Christ, who was able to give them the Spirit. And so, you need to pay attention to John’s message; and you need to look to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and for the gift of his Spirit so that you will not sin, but will do his will and walk in his ways and live a life that is pleasing to him.