“We the people…”
“Four-score and seven years ago…”
“Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
“There’s no place like home…”
Its remarkable how in just a few short words, an entire story, history, or movement can be evoked. If I told a story and peppered in phrases like “the rocket’s red glare,” “liberty,” and “the stars and stripes” you would know that I was wanting to bring up the story of America’s founding. Because those stories and histories are so ingrained in our culture, in our collective consciousness, we can make only passing references to them and pick up that entire narrative thread, without taking the considerable time it would normally take to explain that entire backstory. And, because we can make these passing, concise references to these whole backstories, that means we can actually utilize those narratives to progress a new story. So, if I told a story of two armies at war, forces of good versus evil, locked in mortal combat, and I ended the story with the hero saying to one of his companions, “May the force be with you,” you would suddenly realize that this whole story was taking place in light of the story of Star Wars. It is a new story—it isn’t just a retelling of Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star—but for you to understand the depths of the story, you now have to interpret it in light of this previous story.
This is what Mark is doing in his gospel. He is shedding light back on the story of the Old Testament by picking out key words, phrases, and motifs to present the story of Jesus as the Messiah. We have looked over the past number of weeks at what that Old Testament story is, and much of it has had to do with the story of exile. Jesus came to bring an end to Israel’s exile, but in doing so He also brought an end to the cosmic exile all of humanity and all of creation was experiencing since the Garden of Eden. However, there is one more major Old Testament story that Mark is picking up on that we need to understand so we can understand his story rightly: the Exodus.
Who Is the Messenger?
Mark begins his introduction of the gospel by turning towards Isaiah,
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” – Mark 1:1-3
Mark’s citation of Isaiah, as you may have noticed, is actually more than just Isaiah. It is an amalgam of Isaiah, Malachi, and the book of Exodus. This isn’t an instance of the Bible erring, but this was a common practice done then; when citing several passages, one would at times only reference the most important of the prophets being cited—and, as the rest of Mark will show us, Isaiah is very significant to his understanding of the person and work of Jesus. And, when we look more closely at Malachi 3:1, it would appear that Malachi is intentionally patterning itself on Isaiah, so connecting it with Isaiah seems appropriate. So, what are these verses telling us?
Mark is citing Malachi 3:1a here, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” This is Yahweh Himself speaking here, so the “messenger” is preparing the way for Yahweh Himself to return, and when He returns He will come to the temple (3:1b) and will bring a fiery judgment to purify it (3:2-4). But this “messenger” is further narrowed down to a specific individual; Malachi explains that before the day of judgment comes, Elijah the prophet will come again, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes,” (Mal 4:5). So, according to Malachi, before Yahweh returns to purify Israel and its worship, a figure like Elijah will arise and first prepare the way. But, do you notice the difference between Malachi 3:1 and how it sounds in Mark?
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. – Malachi 3:1
Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way. – Mark 1:2
This addition comes from Exodus 23:20, “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.” The Hebrew word for “angel” and “messenger” is the same word, malach, (actually, Malachi, in Hebrew means, “my messenger”). Lexically and syntactically the beginning of the verses are very similar, but why would Mark mush these two verses together?
First, both of their contexts are in connection with the “wilderness.” Malachi 3:1 seems to intentionally be looking to Isaiah 40:3 as its identity of the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” (as Mark appears to think he is). Exodus 23:20 is the promise of Yahweh sending His angel/messenger before the nation of Israel to protect them in the wilderness and lead them into the land of Canaan. Secondly, Mark is wanting to highlight a major theme that is present in the book of Isaiah: a new Exodus.
One of the major themes in the book of Isaiah is the return of the nation of Israel from exile being stylized as a new Exodus. The Exodus event was the great hallmark of Yahweh’s salvation of His people in the Old Testament. Yahweh leads His people out of slavery with many signs and wonders, culminating in the parting of the Red Sea, the miraculous provision of food and water in the desert, and the giving of the Law at Sinai. Out of the Exodus flowed the formation of the Hebrew people into the nation of Israel. All throughout the Old Testament, through the law, writings, and prophets, the Exodus looms large, casting its shadow across it all; it becomes an identity marker for both God and Israel, His people. However, in the prophets we are told that there is going to be another great act of salvation that will be like the Exodus, but greater. This “new Exodus” is going to be the way that Yahweh brings an end to the exile of His people:
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land. – Jer 23:7-8
This is all over the book of Isaiah (11:11-16; 35:5-10; 40:3-5; 41:17-20; 42: 14-16; 43:1-3; 43:14-21; 48:20-21; 49:8-12; 51:9-10; 52:11-12; 55:12-13), but one obvious example is found in Isaiah 43:
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people. Isaiah 43:16-20
What happened once before will happen again, only this time it will be bigger and better. In Isaiah 40:3, the Exodus motif of “preparing a way in the wilderness and desert” is picked up, but this time all of creation is going to rearrange itself—mountains being leveled, valleys rising up—to clear a pathway for God’s people to return, and the glory of God—only revealed to Israel after the old Exodus—will now be revealed to all people (40:4-5). And Mark is beginning his gospel account by citing this as a way of saying, Now is the time for this to be fulfilled, the new Exodus has arrived. But, whereas the angel of the Lord went before God’s people to prepare the way in the first Exodus, this time it will be done by the new Elijah, John the Baptist. And, just for good measure, just in case anyone was uncertain about the identity of John the Baptist being this “messenger” that was foretold of, Mark makes sure you see that John the Baptist even looks like Elijah (Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8).
So, who is this messenger? He is one similar to Elijah, the Old Testament prophet who bravely opposed wicked institutions in Israel when the majority of his countrymen had abandoned Yahweh. He will prepare for the coming of Yahweh, the arrival of the end of exile which will come like a new Exodus.
What Does the Messenger Do?
John the Baptist does one basic thing: he calls the nation of Israel to repentance by receiving baptism.
In case you didn’t know it, we didn’t get our church’s name from John the Baptist. John ate locusts and wild honey, not casseroles at potlucks. Why is John baptizing people? There is no command in the Old Testament to baptize anyone. The only information we are given in the text is that this is a baptism, “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (1:4). Certain sects of Judaism (Pharisees and Essenes) would perform regular ritual washings (cf. Mark 7:3-4), but John’s baptism appears to be a once-for-all washing. The only comparative ritual that seems to correspond to this was the baptism ritual performed for Gentile proselytes who were converting to Judaism—so, when a non-Jew wanted to become Jewish religiously, they would be immersed in water as a symbol of cleansing from their previously unclean life. Thus, for John to be baptizing Jews would have been received as a rather provocative message. R.T. France comments, “To ask [Jews] to undergo the same initiatory ritual as was required of a Gentile convert was a powerful statement of John’s theology of the people of God…To be born a Jew was not enough; it was only by μετάνοια εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν that one could be truly counted among the people of God.” This accords nicely with John’s preaching recorded in Matthew:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. – Matthew 3:7-10
Bruce Metzger states, “In effect, John excommunicated the whole nation [of Israel] and received back such as would repent and be baptized,” (The New Testament, 110). Having “Abraham as your father” is no guarantee that you are truly a “child of Abraham,” a member of God’s family (cf. John 8:37-40). How do we know who God’s children are? Those who bear fruit in keeping with repentance. What was the temptation for the Jewish people of John’s time? To assume that because of their family descent, their token ritual participation in worship, their location at Jerusalem, they were already included in God’s family. And John’s message falls on these notions like a thunderbolt on a pine tree. It splits their false sense of security in two. You cannot coast into God’s family on your parents’ coattails; the only pathway to peace with God is through repentance and faith. The messenger of the new exodus is preparing the way for Yahweh to come, and when He does, mountains will fall down, but first people’s hard hearts and pride need to crumble—this is John’s work.
John’s message of repentance and the need for the forgiveness of sins is a message we need to hear today, friends. First, it should make us more cautious about affirming someone else’s faith if we do not see any spiritual fruit in their life; if we do not see them bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. This is true from celebrities who claim to believe in God, to our children who may repeat prayers after us, but have not yet repented of sin and trusted in Christ for their forgiveness. Let’s not put the banner of God’s name on people when we don’t see the work of God evident in their life.
Second, it is a message we need to hear to move us out of places of lukewarm complacency about our faith. I want to talk specifically to the young people here today. Would you call yourself a Christian primarily because that’s what your parents are, or because you have a life marked by repentance and looking to Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins? Is Christianity something like a weird family quirk you have inherited (This is just the way we do things around here), or is it something that has apprehended you and controls you?
Friends, could it be that you have simply been immersed in and around God’s people, but you have not yet actually repented of your sin and turned to Jesus for forgiveness? Do you have other people in your life who would say, “I see a progressive growth in godliness in your life; I see a concrete trust in Jesus, not your own good works, for your standing with God.”
There is an unhealthy kind of introspection that plagues Christians with sensitive consciences; a kind of person who is constantly digging up the roots to examine whether or not they are growing. But there is another kind of person who presumes upon God’s grace, who isn’t concerned enough about the state of their soul. Paul warns the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” 2 Corinthians 13:5.
Would anyone else be able to say, “Yes, I see Jesus Christ in you”? One of the many benefits of belonging to a church is that it provides a way of integrating your life into the lives of others so intimately that people around you can say: I see your life, I know your sins, but I can affirm that your trust in Christ is genuine, to the best of my abilities. Rather than just being left in a the foggy world of personal subjectivity, belonging to a church provides an objective—even if imperfect—means to affirm God’s work in your life. Maybe today during lunch, or this week in your small group you could ask one another: How have you seen me grow in repentance and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of my sins? Do we have the kind of relationship where we would even know about our progress in repentance and faith?
This emphasis on repentance and forgiveness is not incidental to God’s plan; it is the very means by which God, through John the Baptist, is preparing the way for His next great act of salvation, the new Exodus. Who is the messenger? John the Baptist, the promised one who would prepare the way of the Lord’s new Exodus, one like Elijah who would challenge faithless Israel. What did this messenger do? He prepares the way for the new Exodus by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And lastly, who does the messenger prepare the way for?
Who Does the Messenger Prepare the Way for?
John the Baptist preaches, “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,” (1:7-8). John’s ministry, as the one who prepares the way, is basically a ministry of pointing away from himself to Someone else (cf. John 3:30). There is one who is coming who will do with the Holy Spirit what John has been doing with water. This reference to “baptism of the Spirit” is simply a way of saying that the One that John is preparing the way for will be the One who gives the Holy Spirit. The giving of the Holy Spirit is promised in the Old Testament as a benefit of the New Covenant (Ezekiel 36:26-28; Jer 31:31-34). It is not referring to some subsequent experience after an individual is converted, but is just another way of saying that this Individual will usher in the blessings of the New Covenant. And, of course, the New Covenant is contrasted with the Old Covenant, the one made at Sinai, the one made after the Exodus. So, for the New Covenant to be installed, what must happen first? The New Exodus.
Look at all the ways Mark shows us that Jesus’ story resonates with the Exodus story as he introduces Jesus:
- John the Baptist is likened to the angel of the Exodus, preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness, is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise of the coming of the new Exodus, and is baptizing at the river Jordan (the place the original Exodus led to just prior to entering the Promised Land).
- Jesus passes through the waters of the river Jordan
- He receives the same title Israel receives of “beloved Son” (cf. Jer 31:20; Ex 4:4)
- As the Spirit led Israel through the wilderness, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness
- As Israel spent forty years wandering in the wilderness for their sin (one year for each day Moses was on the mountain), Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness being tempted to sin.
But, in several ways, Jesus’ story appears to be an even better one than the original Exodus:
- Rather than waters parting, the very heavens split open
- Jesus comes through the temptation unscathed, resisting Satan.
- Jesus is the one who can fulfill the promise of the new covenant because He is the one who is anointed with the Holy Spirit.
- Israel was intended to be a picture of the kingdom of God on earth when they entered the Promised Land, but they failed. Jesus resists temptation and announces the gospel of God by announcing that kingdom of God has now arrived.
To understand this, we need to understand it in light of the new Exodus. At the Exodus…
God’s people were delivered from the sentence of death, from the bondage of slavery, by the gracious work of God;
God passed over His people’s sins through the sacrifice of a spotless lamb;
He made a way where there was no way, parting the waters of the Red Sea, single handedly delivering his people and destroying their enemies, saving them by grace (Ex 14:14);
After their salvation, God entered into a covenant with Israel, constituting them as a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:6) and gave them a Law and a covenant mediator, Moses;
He provided for them in the wilderness as He led them to the river Jordan where they passed through the waters to inherit the Promised Land.
And the gospel of Mark begins by saying, The time is fulfilled, the New Exodus has come. Do you see how the wider message of the gospel corresponds with the Exodus story?
God’s people are delivered from the sentence of death, from their bondage to the slavery of sin;
God passes over His people’s sins because they have taken shelter under the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ;
God provides the Way when there was no way, destroying our enemies of sin and death, saving us by grace;
God saves us and places us into a new covenant, makes us a kingdom of priests, and writes His Law on our hearts, gives us His Spirit, and a new covenant mediator, Jesus Christ;
He provides for us as we walk through the wilderness of this world, leading us to the final Promised Land of the New Heavens and New Earth that await us.
Jesus is the fulfillment of Scripture. When Jesus tells us that He has come as the fulfillment of Scripture (Matt 5:17-20)—this doesn’t mean that Jesus is the fulfillment of a handful of predictive prophecies alone. Rather, it means that the entire storyline of the Bible finds its climax in Jesus life and work.
The benefits of the new exodus are only for those who realize that they don’t deserve it and who are willing to follow the Lord as He leads them to the Promised Land. Paul finds a wealth of encouragement and instruction for Christians in reflecting on the Exodus story:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. – 1 Cor 10:1-14
 France, R. T. (2002). The Gospel of Mark: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 66). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.