Preparing the Way
Preparation is a major part of any task. Think about the construction of a major highway. There are engineering studies, environmental studies, soil studies, public hearings, an extensive permitting process, and the list goes on and on. All those preparations must be made before one cubic foot of earth is moved.
When I’m given a task or a responsibility to fulfill, I want to know what’s expected of me. Whether it’s preaching, traveling, or building a piece of furniture, making adequate preparations helps me feel like I’m in control of the situation. I hate to feel like I’m not properly prepared.
The Bible teaches us that preparations are important to God, too. In II Timothy 1:9 Paul wrote, “[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began…” So, the preparations for your salvation and mine were made even before God created the world! That’s both amazing and reassuring.
Hebrews 11:7 says that Noah, “…being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household…” Before His final feast of the Passover with His disciples, He sent them into the city ahead of time to prepare. There are many, many other examples in the Scripture we could list.
In the opening verses of his Gospel, Mark lays out the preparation God made before Jesus began His public ministry. The theme of preparation is repeated numerous times in the first eight verses. Because of this emphasis, I’ve titled my teaching “Preparing the Way.” Our text is Mark 1:1 to 8. Listen carefully for this theme as I read these verses from Holy Scripture.
In this text, we find several essential ASPECTS of preparing the way for the Gospel. While the historical situation is unique, these aspects are universally applicable.
The First Essential ASPECT (of preparing the way) is,
Mark begins his gospel with a simple statement of fact. He is sharing the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is his mandate, his authorization to give us a written record of the life and ministry of Jesus. Fast-moving and at times, abrupt, we see evidence of Peter’s influence as Mark wrote his record of the life and ministry of Jesus.
In contrast to Matthew and Luke’s accounts, Mark completely passes over Jesus’ earthly family and the fact that He was an ancestor of King David. Nor does he go back to the account of creation like John does. These things indicate that he was writing primarily for a Gentile audience.
The Gospel is the good news about Jesus Christ. It’s the “good tidings of great joy for all people” that the angels revealed to the shepherds in Luke’s account. The name, Jesus, is the Hebrew, Yeshua, or the English, Joshua. It means “Yahweh is salvation.” It was a common name.
But then Mark added Christ (Christos), or the Hebrew Mashiach. This is translated as the Messiah or the Anointed One. Many prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures spoke of this coming Messiah, but Mark skips over them and simply takes Jesus’ identity as Messiah as a fact.
Mark further states that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is the Son of God. In other words, Jesus Christ was God Himself in human form! Paul confirms this in Colossians 2:9 by writing “…in Him [Jesus] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form.”
Even though Mark begins his record so abruptly, he acknowledges that Jesus didn’t burst onto the world scene without warning. In the next couple verses he provides two quotes from different Old Testament prophets. These are the only two direct quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures that Mark makes. These prophecies are part of the mandate.
The first prophecy is a partial quote from Malachi 3:1. “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me.” Contrast that with what Mark wrote. “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.” Note the switch from Malachi’s “before Me,” to Mark’s “before You.” This is a confirmation of the deity of Christ.
The second prophecy is a quote from Isaiah 40:3. Again, let’s compare them. Isaiah wrote, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Mark exclaims, “A voice crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” He adds the phrase “make his paths straight.”
The word paths means a beaten track or a road. The Roman road system of Mark’s time facilitated the passing of royal messengers carrying the proclamations of the emperor or governor. So, the mandate for this prophetic messenger was to remove any obstacles that would hinder the proclamation of the gospel message. In both of these prophecies a “way” is being prepared. It’s no wonder then, that Jesus said of Himself, “I am the Way…” He also pointed out the differences resulting from following the narrow way to life or the broad way to destruction.
While the coming of Jesus in human form was a one-time historical event, sharing the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is still our mandate as His followers. We are His messengers, and we are tasked with removing obstacles to His message. What are those obstacles and how can we remove them? We’ll get more into the details of that as we move further into the text. For now, we should ponder the question, what am I doing to prepare the way of the Lord so others can follow Him?
The Next Essential ASPECT (of preparing the way) is,
A message needs a messenger. Preparation involves a person or people. In preparing the way for Jesus and His message, that person was John—the “baptizing one.” That distinguishes him from many others with the same name who lived during that time. He came, just as the prophets had declared. His coming signaled the beginning of a new era, a new dispensation.
In Mark’s narrative, John the Baptist seems to come out of nowhere, he just appears on the scene. But he was, in the words of the apostle John, “a man sent from God.” He appeared in the wilderness and began “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” For now, let’s just bypass the message and continue our focus on the messenger.
The response to this unusual messenger was electric! He goes from an unknown person who appears in the wilderness to somewhat of a celebrity. Word of this unusual man and his unusual ministry spread, and day after day a steady stream of people from all over the Judean countryside and the city of Jerusalem were trekking out into the wilderness to see this spectacle. Jerusalem was about 20 miles west of where John was baptizing people in the Jordan River. This was no easy walk in the park!
John’s appearance was exceptional. It seems that his rugged persona was a drawing factor. It identified him as a prophet in the mold of Elijah. His clothing was made from the crudest kind of rough cloth of camel’s hair, secured around his waist with a leather belt. John didn’t seem to have any concerns about the pretense of comfort or style so important to society. Later, Jesus reminded His listeners that John’s rugged lifestyle was part of what made him appealing.
In the Judean wilderness, there’s not much to eat. It’s a very barren area. But the text tells us that part of John’s diet consisted of locusts. A couple of years ago, when we had the 17-year locusts here in the eastern US, my son gathered some of the larvae and the adult insects. He fried them and he and some of his siblings ate them. They do provide some nutrition.
Further, because of the rugged terrain in this area, bees make their nests in the crevices of the rocky cliffs. Some Bedouins, even today, make a living by gathering and selling this honey. This honey was another significant part of John’s spartan diet.
John’s physical appearance evidently fit the mold of what people at that time expected in a prophet. Today, a person like John would most likely be scorned and made the butt of jokes, by the religious and unreligious alike. But genuine messengers of the Lord will always be looked at as somewhat countercultural. That’s because our first loyalty is not to any kingdom of this world, rather our first loyalty is to Jesus and His kingdom.
John was preaching and Paul asks the question in Romans 10:14, “And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Incidentally, the word preacher doesn’t mean an ordained person or pastor, it means a messenger. You and I are the messengers of the Lord today. Like John, we will, in some cases, seem out of touch with modern sensibilities. Like him, we’ll need to take a stand for truth even if it endangers our possessions, our security, and even our physical lives. John was not “a reed shaken in the wind.” His refusal to compromise the truth about the permanence of marriage caused him to lose his head to Herod.
So, what kind of messenger are you? What kind of messenger am I? Do we understand the clear calling of God on our lives? Are we willing to proclaim the “hard truths” of God’s Word in spite of the cost? Are we willing to forego some of the comforts of this world, some of its approval, some of its acclaim, in order to have the approval of the One who sent us?
The Final Essential ASPECT (of preparing the way) is,
For John, being the messenger of the Lord and preparing the way for Him meant that he had a specific message. What was John’s message and how does it apply to you and me today? The text says he was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” A baptism for forgiveness? What are we to make of this?
According to the Law, if you needed forgiveness, you went to the Temple and presented a sacrifice. God’s priest took your sacrifice and presented it to the Lord. For John to preach “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” indicated that he was either a religious lunatic or a prophet from God. As I said earlier, John was preparing the way for a new dispensation.
We know from the whole scope of New Testament teaching that baptism isn’t the means of obtaining forgiveness for our sins. Baptism isn’t even necessary for forgiveness. It is, however, an important part of obedience. What John was preaching was characterized by repentance. The baptism was an outward expression of something that was happening on the inside of the person responding—a truly repentant heart. The word repentance is metanoia. Meta means change, and noia means mind or perspective. So, repentance is changing one’s way of thinking.
Baptism wasn’t something foreign to John’s audience. It was already used, especially by the Jews for proselytes or converts to Judaism. The importance of cleansing the body was well understood and practiced at that time. During our trip to Israel, we saw many ritual baths, called mikvahs in Qumran and also in the ruins around the Temple Mount.
So, what were all of these people doing who were flocking out of Jerusalem and Judea to see this unusual prophet? Verse five says they were being baptized and confessing their sins. This wasn’t a ritual bath. Something was happening in their hearts!
Confession of sin is agreeing with God about how He sees our sin. Our sin is ugly, it’s repulsive, and it separates us from Him. Confession is the evidence of repentance. No confession, no repentance. No repentance, no confession. The apostle John reminds us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And so, we pray like the tax collector in Luke 18:13, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
An important part of this confession was that it was public. It seems that the confession and baptism were happening simultaneously. Sunlight is an effective disinfectant. As long as sin is hidden it grows and spreads. Public confession provides accountability.
It was also a personal, individual confession. Each one who came to John’s baptism was acknowledging that their old way of living was unfit for the coming kingdom. Their sins were obstructing the path to salvation. To prepare the way for the Lord, their sins needed to be removed. Their baptism was an outward sign of inner change. It is still the same today.
Today we’re told, “Come to Jesus just as you are.” That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth is that you need to confess your sins, agreeing with what God says about them. And that confession is motivated by repentance, a change of mind, a change of heart, and a change of direction.
You can come to Jesus just as you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay the way you are. You can’t come to Jesus and continue living in rebellion against His commands. Genuine heart-change will give you a desire to obey Him, to live for His glory. You will also give Him the freedom to remove anything from your life that is displeasing to Him.
John’s choosing the Jordan as the site of his baptism holds some additional truth for us. Remember that many centuries before this, Joshua and the people of Israel crossed this same river after they had been wandering aimlessly in the wilderness for 40 years because they didn’t believe God’s promises. When that generation had all died, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, they were able to enter into their promised inheritance.
Now, those being baptized by John were also leaving behind the aimless wandering of their old way of life. They were entering into the promise of God’s coming kingdom. So, the Jordan River became a symbol of leaving the old way and entering into the new way.
But there was more to John’s proclamation, his message preparing the way. He said, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
From reading this account, I believe the people were somewhat in awe of John. After all, there hadn’t been a prophet of the Lord in Israel since the prophet Malachi, several hundred years before this. But John was a humble man, the other Gospel accounts confirm this.
He said, “Someone is coming after me who is more powerful than I am. He is so far superior to me that I am not even worthy to stoop down and untie the strap on His sandal.” In the customs of the time, unloosing the sandals of a guest was a job that was assigned to the lowest slave in the household. Mark alone gives us this detail regarding the unloosing of the sandal strap. I’d say John the Baptist modeled the message he was proclaiming.
But John wasn’t finished yet. He said, “I have baptized you in water, but He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.” That was a prophetic message; it was still in the future. John’s baptism was meaningful, but it was only symbolic. It was pointing forward to something much more powerful and enduring – the presence of the Holy Spirit.
John’s mandate was given to him by God. From his mother’s womb, he was set apart for a special mission. You and I have the same mandate and we must never forget this! We are called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
John came as a messenger to prepare the way of the Lord. While you may not have the same mission or the same impact, or the same visibility that John did, as a follower of Christ you too have been called to be a messenger for Him. So, have I.
Paul wrote about you and me in Ephesians chapter 4. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” In chapter one of this same letter, Paul writes that we were chosen by God before the creation of the world. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that humbling? Why me?
And finally, we have been given a message, a message that the world so desperately needs. It is the same message that the apostles preached. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he wrote, “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame… For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
John the Baptist came, preparing the way for Messiah’s first coming. How are you and I preparing the way for Messiah’s return?