Theme: Christ Commences His Ministry
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; as it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with the girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; and preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit (vv. 1-8).
To say the least, John Mark was in a hurry! He believed in coming straight to the point. He did not like "beating around the bush!" Any psychoanalyst would have an interesting time, if he considered this introduction; then compared it with the introductions found in the other three Gospels. Using only eight verses, Mark encompasses the Old Testament, cites the prophets, describes the ministry of John the Baptist, and then introduces Jesus. Matthew, Luke and John are totally different in the approach to their accounts of the life of the Lord. Matthew had something to prove. He believed his Master was the Messiah, and went to great lengths supplying evidence to support his assertions. He does not really introduce the Person of Jesus until he reaches chapter 3, verse 13, where he says, "Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John to be baptized of him." Matthew begins his Gospel by tracing the genealogy of Christ back through the generations to David and Abraham. He then proceeds to speak of the birth of the Lord and how the Wise Men came to ask, "Where is He that is born King of the Jews?" For a time, Matthew appears to be more concerned with his facts than with his Friend. Finally, after writing what we now call two and one-half chapters, he reaches the place where all attention is focused on his Master. In contrast to this, Mark had nothing to prove. His Lord had come and that was all that mattered. His wonderful Savior had been on earth doing amazing things for needy people. He had good news to tell. He might have been excused had he said, "Why waste time talking about these other things? I want to speak about Jesus, so let me get on with my job!
Luke also had something to prove. As a medical man he had already recognized Christ as the perfect specimen of humanity. There never had been, and there never would be, another to be compared with Jesus. Luke made it his business to ask questions, and there is every reason to believe he interviewed Mary and any others who could add to his knowledge of events leading to the birth of his Savior. Very carefully, Luke prepared his manuscript and took almost three chapters, before he brought Christ into the center of his story; but even then, the Lord appeared but for a brief time. Having said, "Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended in a bodily shape upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased," Luke reverts to his earlier style and proceeds to give a lengthy list of Christ's ancestors. Let it be candidly admitted that even today very few people take the time to read Luke's list of names. John Mark might have been excused had he read Luke's introduction; then heaving a great sigh, he said, "Brother, let's get on with it!"
Finally, as we consider the introduction to John's Gospel, we become aware that he too went a long way back in time to find a starting point. He wrote, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:1-2). The casual reader might—and I repeat my word—might wonder as to the identity of the Word. John, in verse fourteen of his first chapter writes: "And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth." Then the author proceeds, as did Matthew and Luke to devote time and space to the record of the ministry of John the Baptist. Finally, in verse 29 he writes, "The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and sayeth, 'Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world'." John Mark might have been tempted to begin his message with that same profound statement.
Now, lest I be accused of heresy, let me hasten to explain something which is very important. Simon Peter said, "... holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). We believe the same Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Gospels, so that a needy world could receive the Word of God. It was both necessary and beneficial for us all, that Matthew, Luke and John should write lengthy, detailed introductions to their Gospels, for without these messages, the world would be infinitely poorer. If, as was earlier suggested, Mark's Gospel was the first to make its appearance, then it is easy to understand how the later writers had opportunity to study his message. They were able to think of other things they would like to include, and when the Holy Spirit gently reminded them of more and more details, then at a later date, these were included in their memoirs of Jesus. The fact remains that John Mark was not a historian as was Matthew; nor a doctor as was Luke; not a theologian as was John. He was still a boy whose heart was filled with enthusiasm for his Lord. He had discovered Jesus the Wonderful! and if he had not talked about Him, he would have burst!
John Mark's soul was like a reservoir imprisoned behind the walls of a great dam. Suddenly the opportunity came for the life-giving waters to cascade toward a dry and dying world. Matthew, Luke and John seemingly had plenty of time to devote to lengthy descriptions of events and discourses. The first three chapters of Matthew belong to this category, and for the most part so do the first three chapters of Luke. It is noteworthy that most of John's chapters provide details of one complete story sermon. Mark, on the other hand, bursts upon the scene with descriptions of numerous stories. Once he gets started, he seems to be saying, "listen to this, this, and this" and that probably explains why his first chapter has to be divided into seven different sections. If the other evangelists were "deep-sea divers" exploring the marvelous depths of God's ocean, Mark was a youthful "water skier," skimming excitedly over the surface of the life of his Lord, and revelling in all he saw and heard. While his contemporaries were studiously reporting on obscure events and genealogies, Mark was telling people about the miracles performed by his Master. He was indeed in a great hurry; he was getting on with the task given to him by his Lord. It might well be said that John Mark set fire to his world, while his brethren looked for a match!
And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him. And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And immediately the spirit driveth Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto Him (vv. 9-13).
It is not known whether or not John Mark ever had the privilege of meeting John the Baptist. He was only a boy when the ministry of the Wilderness Preacher terminated. However, it would be unwise to be dogmatic on the subject for Mark affirms "... 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, confessing their sins" (v. 5). We are sure that Mark was well aware of what had taken place in the Jordan valley, and as a result, fierce excitement burned in his soul. At this early part of his narrative, he is about to introduce Jesus to his readers, but ere we consider what he has to say, it might be wise if we retrace our steps to consider a little more of his introduction to the Gospel.
Mark, in common with other Hebrew youths, had great faith in the prophets. He had been obliged to memorize certain parts of their writings, and, long before the Baptist preacher made an appearance in the countryside, young Mark had been aware of the great predictions made centuries earlier. In retrospect, as he wrote his Gospel, it was easy for him to associate the Wilderness Preacher with what had been said concerning his ministry. "As it is written in the prophets, Behold I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee" (Malachi 3:1). John Mark had no problem associating John the Baptist with the prediction made by Isaiah: "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it" (Isaiah 40:3-5). God meant what He had said. The Lord had come, and the appointed forerunner had prepared the way before him.
"And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey" (v. 6). He had been the only student in God's theological college. He had enjoyed private tuition from the one and only Professor—the Lord Himself! We do not know anything about the mode of teaching; nor what was taught, but we know that after John had graduated, he came to his place of ministry as a man sent from God. Probably, he was the greatest evangelist ever to minister on earth. He had no committee to prepare the way ahead of him; he had no trained workers to do "follow-up work;" he never had a choir; he never had any special musical items. He never spent money on advertising, and was never heard on radio nor television. He never took a collection, but he shook the powers of hell. These are the characteristics of all preachers "sent by God."
"And there went out to him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins" (v. 5). The Valley of the Jordan was soon turned into an open-air cathedral. Oxen, wagons, tents and people were everywhere. Meeting succeeded meeting, and revival was in the air. Some people thought that Elijah had returned to earth, but everyone knew God was there. Day after day the voice of the evangelist warned of the consequences of sin, of the certainty of impending judgment, and of the necessity to repent and be forgiven. Arguments were virtually unknown, and the number of baptisms increased daily. It is of great interest, that, although eventually certain of the scribes and Pharisees questioned John's authority, no critic ever challenged his mode of baptism. Anxious as they were to stop this challenging movement, no one ever expressed surprise that he was baptizing people. Baptism by immersion was fully understood in Israel. The leaders taught, and the nation believed that they, and they alone, were the chosen people of God. They did, however, recognize that Gentiles might "see the light" and ask for acceptance among the people of God. Such converts were known as proselytes. They were never fully accepted into the fellowship of the nation until they were baptized, for this signified they had "washed away their sins" that is, they had renounced their idolatry. If such people lived in areas where water was plentiful, they were baptized in ponds or rivers; where supplies of water were scarce, the officiating priests used tubs or baths. The only surprising thing about the baptism practiced by John was the fact that he baptized JEWS. It was amazing that he, a Jew, was asking Jews to submit to that to which only a Gentile was supposed to submit. John realized that to be a Jew in the racial sense was not to be a member of God's chosen people. A Jew might be in exactly the same position as a Gentile; not the Jewish life but the cleansed life belonged to God.
John said, "I indeed have baptized you with water, but He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (v. 8). It is noteworthy that no translator ever changes this verse. John's magnificent utterances stands alone; it could never be applied to any other, for only God can "baptize with the Holy Spirit." Here we have, in all its beautiful simplicity, the foreshadowings of the great doctrines later to be expounded through the early church. God had indeed come down to tabernacle among men. To be immersed in water signified that the participant had voluntarily forsaken the old life of sin; to be immersed in the power of the Holy Spirit indicated the same participant had sincerely embraced the deeper life offered,—to be filled and flooded with the very life of God, the Divine Spirit. The first of these might indicate a wonderful confession; the second reveals something far better—a marvelous condition!
"And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (v. 11). To some, it will always be a mystery why Christ should submit to a rite reserved specially for penitent people. It must be remembered that He came to be associated with sinners, to be identified with them, and to set an example for them to follow. He had no sin of His own, but His action endorsed all that John the Baptist said. In some senses, this was an even greater confession than His being immersed in the waters of the Jordan. All of heaven was interested in what was taking place. We have been told in Genesis 1:26, that in the beginning of time, the triune God met and said, "Let US make man in OUR image." The members of the same Divine Family were at the baptism of Jesus. God the Father spoke from Heaven, God the Son stood listening, and God the Holy Spirit descended upon the Savior. At the beginning they said, "Let us make man." At the Jordan they seemed to be saying, "Let us save man." The ensuing story of the Gospels reveals how They did it.
"And immediately the Spirit driveth Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto Him" (vv. 12-13). It should never be forgotten that in the two outstanding crises of the Savior's life, the angels ministered unto Him. Luke tells us that when, in agony, the Lord prayed in Gethsemane, "... there appeared an angel unto Him from heaven, strengthening Him" (Luke 22:43). Was there physical danger in the desert where Christ was being tempted? Did the "wild animals" present a threat? We do know that it was Satan, who would have liked to kill Christ in the garden of Gethsemane; Satan who suggested that the Lord should cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; Satan who also used a mob to thrust Christ toward a precipice in Nazareth: that same evil One, had it been possible, would have used the wild animals to tear the Lord's body apart. We are told in Hebrews 1:14, "... the angels are ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation." It is comforting to know that as they stood by the Savior in His hour of trial and temptation; so also they stand by those who trust in Him. We are never alone! It is gloriously possible to
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face:
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.