Have you ever heard unexpectedly of something exciting going on in your community? Perhaps you heard it first from a friend who couldn’t wait to tell you about it. And then you heard about it from someone else, and before long it was all everyone was talking about?
Have you heard about that guy preaching down by the Jordan? Where did he come from? It’s like he appeared out of nowhere. Did you hear about what he said today? Who is he, anyway?
All of a sudden it is the talk of the town; indeed, the talk of the entire area. Everyone wants to know what is going on at the Jordan.
Mark Gets Right to It
The books of Matthew and Luke begin with a lot of preliminary material and neither actually gets to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry until the third chapter. But I like the way Mark gets right to it in the very first verse:
The beginning of the good news about Jesus…
Mark then introduces John the Baptizer in his capacity as the herald of good news who is preparing the path of the coming one. Verse 4 states:
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him.
This must be exactly how the people of the area experienced it: life was going on in its daily routine of struggle and conflict and the grinding unhappiness and discontent over the Roman occupation, when suddenly John bursts upon the scene—just like that!
Mark brings us at once into this good news excitement. What caused this excitement? What was John preaching?
The Message of John
Actually, John’s message is very simple. Matthew 3 says it is ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (the kingdom of heaven is exactly the same as the kingdom of God). And response to his message consists of three points:
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
Repentance. Repentance simply means changing one’s perspective. People hearing John’s preaching about the coming kingdom of God changed their minds about their former direction and behavior and aligned themselves with the coming kingdom. This change of perspective also brought them pardon for their previous orientation.
Confession: Confession was acknowledging or admitting the errors of their old perspective.
Baptism. Baptism was a public act of identifying with the coming kingdom John preached about; those who were baptized declared that they were committed to this community of the coming Lord.
Notice here that there is no sinner’s prayer or other salvation ritual—just a change of perspective and identification with the coming kingdom. There is also no mention of doctrinal commitments or legalistic standards; but even those newly identified with the kingdom thought there should be some additional commitment.
What Should We Do Then?
John really captured the crowd’s attention when he questioned their sincerity. Luke 3 reports him as saying:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
So they asked, ‘What should we do then?’
John’s answers are very revealing. If you have two shirts share one with someone who needs it and do the same with your food; if you’re a tax collector don’t gouge people to line your pockets; if you are a soldier don’t extort people, blackmail them, or otherwise augment your pay at their expense.
John did not offer a list of religious rules to observe; all his examples were practical issues of treating people fairly. This is the result of repentance—changing one’s direction. What a revelation! Perhaps John’s answers can help us when we wonder what we should do as we commit to the kingdom of God.
Luke says that there were Pharisees and Sadducees among those John addressed as a brood of vipers, but John did not share with them what they should do; apparently they didn’t ask. Let us not be guilty of failing to ask this very important question.
One More Face In the Crowd at the Jordan
We don’t know how many people John baptized. Certainly hundreds; perhaps multiple thousands. A LOT of people came to John to prepare for the coming kingdom, but we know nothing yet of their stories or even their names—except for one.
One day, among those who came for baptism was a man from Galilee. He was not the first Galilean to be baptized for we later learn of other Galileans who were baptized before him. John’s message must have reached far and wide to attract the attention of these Galileans.
However, this baptism was different from others John performed. Mark 1 says that:
Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
Mark, Matthew, and Luke say that Jesus is the one who witnessed this appearance. The Gospel of John mentions that John the Baptist also saw the dove come and stay on Jesus, but the primary target of this experience was this Jesus of Galilee, and it raises the question, ‘Why did it happen?’
Perhaps many of us never considered this question because we assumed it was just a confirmation of Jesus’ ongoing relationship with the Father, but this is not necessarily so. We must remember that, whatever else Jesus was, he was human. We should not think that when Jesus was born he looked up from the manger and thought, ‘Well, I’m here; the plan has begun!’
It makes more sense that Jesus’ awareness and understanding of his mission and his relationship with the Father was gradual and developing. Even at 30 years old, the unusual experience at his baptism could have been his first clue that he was in any way different from the others who came to be baptized. We will explore this theme further as we go.
The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God Changes from John to Jesus
Little did John know how much would change when he baptized this candidate—this Jesus from Galilee. From this point on John’s work declines and the focus changes to Jesus who carries out John’s work but under his own authority. So, as Mark says, this is indeed the beginning of the good news about Jesus the anointed one!
After this episode, the story is all about Jesus; and we will explore his story in this new series.
Articles in this series
Jesus Begins His Work:
The Beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Anointed One
Do Jesus’ Words and Actions Demonstrate Empathy — or Judgment?
Does Jesus Disagree with John the Baptist’s Message of the Coming Judgment of God?
Why Didn’t Jesus Recruit Better Help for His Galilean Work?
Did Jesus Really Heal People?
Do Demons Exist?
Jesus Adds a Shocking Twist to Healing
Jesus Calls a Fifth Follower—and What a Loser!
Jesus Refuses to Ask His Disciple to Fast
Entering the Kingdom Requires Abandoning Old Religious Systems
Jesus Gets into Trouble for Disrespecting the Law
What Do We Learn from ‘Jesus Begins His Work’?
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