He was a TV journalist’s dream. A perfect light (oddball?) moment to close out the newscast. He came clothed in camel’s hair and smelled like it. His favorite food: locusts with a side of wild honey. Hey, Caleb, cameraman! Pull back and get a wide angle shot of him standing by the Jordan with the desert for a backdrop! I can hear the teaser now, just before commercial: “You don’t want to miss our closing story tonight. Stay with us after the break for ‘Bizarre Baptist’.“
Of course, Mark’s news report “of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1) came without TV, cameraman and commercials. It came in Greek writing on papyrus or parchment, It was then circulated to mid-first century churches to be read aloud. But it was new of that “Bizarre Baptist.”
HE HAD BEEN PROPHESIED. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way,
0the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (1:2,3).
If this were done as a TV newscast, the producer might have scrolled these words on the screen with the Jordan and the wilderness as a background. What does this part of the news tell us? That John the (bizarre) Baptist himself fulfilled prophecy. Seven hundred years earlier Isaiah (and Malachi) foretold the coming of this “messenger”. He would come like a herald of an ancient king who would proclaim to a city that the king was about to visit and they had better get ready.
HE APPEARED BAPTIZING. John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (1:4,5). After the scroll prophecy, the screen would show the Bizarre Baptist himself urging massive crowds to be baptized as a sign of repentance so their sins could be forgiven. It would be a weird shot: the Baptist shouting out his repentance sermon even while dunking under the river the line of the willing.
HE PREACHED ABOUT A MIGHTIER ONE TO COME. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:6-8). His clothes and food would have made him look like a Saturday Night Live skit spoofing biblical prophets. But his preaching was anything but funny. A man would come after him, a mighty one more powerful than the Baptist, a majestic one so exalted the Baptist wasn’t even good enough to untie his sandal straps. And just as the Baptist immersed men in water, this mighty one would immerse men in the Holy Spirit. What that meant the Baptist didn’t explain. But to be engulfed by the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of the Holy God—could either be wonderfully life-transforming or fearfully life-taking!
What are we to take away from Mark’s news report about the Bizarre Baptist John?
THAT MARK INTENDED READERS TO REALIZE THE BAPTIST AND THE MIGHTY ONE WERE PART OF THE LORD GOD’S ONGOING WILL IN THE WORLD. For 400 years the Lord had been silent. No prophetic voice had been heard since Malachi. Now Mark—whose news source was the apostle Peter—claims the Baptist’s appearance fulfills Isaiah’s prophetic voice! It reminds us that from Genesis to Revelation, from Abraham to Jesus, God has one plan. Jesus doesn’t replace Judaism, he fulfills it. The New Testament doesn’t cancel the Old, it completes it.
THAT GOD SOMETIMES USES PECULIAR PEOPLE TO SPEAK FOR HIM. John dressed like an Old Testament prophet, because he was a prophet. He wasn’t being counter-cultural, he was personifying Elijah to fulfill the Lord’s words through Malachi: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (Malachi 4:5). Even so, he must have seemed like a throw-back to the long-gone “old days”. Kind of like looking at photos of when you were 12. Sometimes the one who seems an oddball to us is the speaker for God.
THAT REPENTANCE IS REQUIRED TO RECEIVE THE MIGHTY ONE’S FORGIVENESS. The Greek verb “repent” means “to change one’s mind” and then (implicitly) one’s direction in life. If you’re walking north to get to Main Street and ask a passerby for directions and he points south and you change your mind and turn around, that’s repentance. Listen to some well-known preachers today and you’d think repentance went out with the Puritans. Yet even most versions of the so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” (arguably the simplest salvation prayer) refers in some fashion to repenting. This is because Jesus’ basic call is “Follow me”—and inevitably, despite our firm belief, we’re headed the wrong direction.
THAT THE MIGHTY ONE BAPTIZES WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT. Some Pentecostals and Charismatics assert this refers to an experience in the Holy Spirit “subsequent to salvation.” I argue the Baptist is referring to the entire working of the Spirit in the life of a believer (though he almost certainly didn’t understand regeneration, sanctification and glorification!). I base that on Old Testament prophecies such as Joel 2:28,29 where the Lord promised to “pour out my Spirit on all flesh”, Isaiah 32:15 where the prophet spoke of the time when “the Spirit is poured upon us from on high”, and Ezekiel 39:29 where the Lord promised, ” . . . I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” Connecting those prophecies to baptism, the Baptist mysteriously refers to the mighty one coming after who will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” This progressive, life-transforming “baptism with the Holy Spirit” is what the Mighty One offers us today.
Had this appeared as a light moment to close out a TV newscast, few would have imagined how far-reaching the news of the Bizarre Baptist at the Jordan would be!