In first-century Israel, there was no king – at least, no king descended from David. But people were looking for such a king to come. Apocalyptic books like the ones I mentioned in the last post had stirred people up to expect the king’s arrival at any time.
Into this turbulent scene stepped a man who was larger than life. He seemed to be eight hundred years out of his time. He wore strange clothes, ate a weird diet, lived in the harshest imaginable conditions, and spoke like the prophet Elijah. After four hundred years of silence, a prophetic voice was again speaking in Israel. His parents had named him John, but the country had nicknamed him the Baptizer. We know him as John the Baptist.
He exploded onto the scene. The themes of his message – corruption in the places of power, the need for a national repentance, and, most importantly, the coming of the one who would change everything – resonated with people. These were not new themes; they were as old as the prophets. But in John the old themes had found a new voice. Here was a new prophet, a new Elijah, thundering the word of the Lord once again.
John the Baptist is one of the greatest men of Bible Times. Jesus said of him, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John. . .”5 John was suspect in the eyes of the religious establishment, but ordinary people flocked to him. They knew he was right when he said they were wrong and that they needed to do something about it.
When people asked, John told them plainly that he was not the Messiah. He told them, in the words of Isaiah (as Mark has them in verse 3), that he was only “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” John saw his role in a clearly defined manner: His job was to get people ready to receive the Messiah, the King, the Son of David, whose appearance could come at any time.
He told people, verse 7: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
We learn from Matthew’s gospel that John said something else, something that his hearers resonated to and that we, this far into our Wide Angle study, will recognize at once. He said, “Heaven’s Kingdom is near.”6 The kingdom – the kingdom for which faithful Jews had been waiting all their lives, the kingdom that would crush the kingdoms of the world,7 the kingdom promised to David and his descendants forever – was, John said, about to makes its appearance. And because of that, people had better get ready. They had better repent.
For weeks, and perhaps months, vast crowds of people were going to be baptized by John in order to make themselves ready. Then one day a man John had perhaps not seen for years showed up, wanting to be baptized. Apparently, the possibility that he might be the Messiah had not occurred to the Baptizer, but John did know that he was special – very special. He was uncomfortable with the idea of baptizing Jesus. He said that it wasn’t his place, but Jesus convinced him that it was the right thing to do, so the two of them went down into the river. When Jesus came up (verse 10) he saw (perhaps they both saw) heaven being torn open. They would think immediately of the words of the prophet Isaiah, when he pled with God to intervene, to act on behalf of those who waited for him: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.”8 And now they saw the heavens rent.
I’m not sure what that looked like to them, but they then saw the Spirit descending on him (it is interesting in the original language: Jesus came up (anabaino in Greek) out of the water and the Spirit came down (katabaino) onto him. Again, they would think of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.”9 When he saw this, John must have realized that Jesus was the Promised One. He immediately began directing people to Jesus. In fact, Jesus’ earliest disciples came from John.
In verse 11 we read: “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.’” These words are very close to those of Psalm 2, which, very significantly, are addressed to the king God was installing on David’s throne.