Before starting this study, take a moment to read Mark 1:1-8. Although I’ll primarily use the NIV version to prepare this study, you can read from whichever version you prefer.
The Gospel of Mark begins with a quote from Isaiah about a messenger who will prepare the way in the wilderness. John the Baptist is described as a man who wears clothing made from camel hair and eats locusts and honey.
Mark isn’t just describing an odd character, but a man who the original readers would recognize as someone similar to Isaiah, the prophet whose words are quoted in these opening lines. The story unfolds with a familiar story about the baptizer in the wilderness who called all of Israel to repent and be baptized.
Preparing a Way
In verse 2, Isaiah says, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” With the immediate context of the quote, the listener will fill in the blanks with the information they know. It might read, “God will send John the Baptist ahead of Jesus, and John will prepare Jesus’ way.”
After all, this is how we’ve most often heard it interpreted. John the Baptist is a messenger who prepared the way for Jesus. Other Gospel accounts give us more information about John’s birth, adding to our knowledge of his significance.
While this interpretation isn’t wrong, it’s not necessarily complete, either. You can read it another way, too: “God will send Jesus ahead of us, and Jesus will prepare our way.” The double meaning of the verse in context reminds us that just like John prepared the way for Jesus, Jesus came to prepare the way for us to follow God.
Baptism of Repentance
John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. While this wasn’t unheard of in the first-century Jewish tradition, calling all of Israel to this baptism was certainly unique. John essentially tells the people of Israel that all have sinned and need to repent.
Even as he preaches this baptism, he tells the people that another is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, not merely water. Although John had a significant following, he consistently pointed the One who would come and do greater things.
While Christians know that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, this was news to the people of Jesus’ day. They thought that their observance of the Law was all they needed. Because of this, many of the religious elite didn’t recognize that their hearts weren’t in the right place, even as their outward actions professed piety.
All too often, we come to Scripture looking for how it applies to us. Don’t get me wrong: we should read Scripture with the intention of being shaped by it. However, these verses remind us that this is a story of God’s divine work. While we certainly should emulate John and Jesus, the point here is to set up the rest of the Gospel, reminding us that this story is God’s story.
With that in mind, there are still ways for us to apply these verses today. Jesus has prepared the way for us to follow God. It’s our calling to listen to that voice in the wilderness and follow… wherever that might lead us.
Following Jesus isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. Baptism is a reminder that we must die to ourselves and our sinful nature and rise up in the power of God’s Spirit. In the verses that follow, both John and Jesus will be unjustly put to death. The call to follow them means following at any cost… even death.
Today, strive to be a faithful steward of the message God has entrusted you with. Wherever God leads, follow, trusting that God’s Spirit is with you until the end of the age.