September 20, 2015
Perhaps you’re here this morning, and you’d like to personally hear from God. You’re not alone in that desire. There are lots of people who would like to believe in God, whoever He is. If only He would appear to me, reveal Himself to me. If only we could have conversation – if I could see Him with my own eyes, touch Him with my own hands, hear Him with my own ears. Then, I’d believe. You’re not alone.
Perhaps you’ve thought about it critically – there are lots of good reasons to believe in a deity. You look around and despite the claims of naturalism, you see lots of order and beauty in creation – there must be Someone behind it – it can’t all be random chance, can it? You notice that people generally have an innate sense of right and wrong – a sense of morality – and you wonder where that came from. You notice lots of people believe in God – why? Why is there this innate understanding of Someone greater, other? And therein lies another challenge, there are so many so-called gods – which one to choose? If only He would appear.
We have just begun a study of the Gospel According to Mark – the second book of the Christian New Testament. And it is my desire in this book to do a couple of things. First, if you know God, I want to see your faith strengthened by looking at the One who came to make God known. And if you don’t know God, my hope is to fill your desire to see Him. I know I can’t really do that – but He can. You see, I believe God has answered the desire of your heart. He did come so that we could see Him, feel Him, touch Him, hear Him, know Him, believe in Him. And I believe by studying the life of Jesus in this book, you can’t help but be drawn to Him. There’s something about His life that is irresistible.
So, if there is a God – if this cosmic beauty and order, if this innate sense of morality, if this innate sense of deity – of purpose outside myself – if all that is true, then has this God – the Creator and Ruler – has He revealed Himself so that we can know Him? I believe He has. Hebrews 1 says this, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers [that is, our ancestors] in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son…” In other words, God has revealed Himself to us primarily in two special ways – through the written Word, and through His Son.
Later, John’s first letter says it this way, “1What was from the beginning [that is, the beginning of the gospel or good news that Mark talked about last week], what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— [Stop right there – isn’t that what you want – to see Him, to touch Him – if I could do that, I think I’d believe.]
2 and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us— [that’s what I’m talking about – has God really manifested – has really revealed Himself to us? John says He has.]
3 what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son [that’s what Hebrews said – He’s spoken to us, revealed Himself to us through His Son, who is] Jesus Christ.
The gospel narratives – that is, the first four books of the New Testament – tell us this story of Jesus – Mark’s story begins by reminding us this Jesus is the Christ, and the Son of God. I won’t take the time to review all the verses that say Jesus came to reveal God to us – since He was God in the flesh – but it’s all over the NT. And so in His story, we come to know God, because Jesus came to reveal God to us – John says, so we could be in relationship with Him. So my desire in our time in Mark, is for us to know God better by seeing Him revealed through His Son. And for some of you, I want you to come to God through His Son. Because, I understand there are lots gods from which to choose – but I believe when you take a close look at Jesus, you will see the true and living God – you will be irresistibly drawn to Him.
Now, that verse in Hebrews said that long ago God spoke to us, revealed Himself to us through the prophets. The story of Christianity actually begins in the OT with God speaking. He spoke from the very beginning when He spoke this world into existence. But later, He spoke to reveal Himself to Abraham. And God continued speaking to the Israelites throughout their history. Again, starting with Abraham, God called him while he was still in the Ur of the Chaldees. He called him out of his idolatry to be a worshipper of the true God. He told Abraham to leave and travel west to Canaan, where God would give him the land, make a great nation of him, and that through him, all the nations of the world would be blessed – that is, God would reveal Himself through a descendant of Abraham. And the rest of the Bible is the fulfillment of that promise.
Because, God is a God who speaks and who has made Himself known. God continued to speak to this nation – to Abraham’s son Isaac, and his son Jacob. Jacob would have twelve sons, who would become the twelve tribes of Israel. After an extended stay in Egypt, God spoke to Moses, and said, go deliver them from Egypt. So, the Israelites, a large nation, made their way back to Canaan, where eventually, under Joshua, they took the land. You see, God was fulfilling the promises He made to Abraham. And for the next thousand years, through periods of apostasy in the time of the judges, through the good and bad kings of the monarchy, through the captivities, God continued to speak to the nation through the prophets.
There was Elijah and Elisha, Samuel and Nathan, Isaiah and Jeremiah. There were all those minor prophets, tucked away at the end of the Old Testament we have trouble finding, like Amos and Obadiah, Micah and Nahum. The last of those minor prophets was Malachi, who lived around 400 BC. And he wrote God’s final words to His people in the Old Testament. I say final, because, after Malachi, there was silence. No more prophets. No more Old Testament books. God no longer spoke to His people. He was silent for hundreds of years.
That had never happened before in the history of this nation. God always had His messengers, and spoke to the nation. But now, there was an eerie silence. And the Jews longed to hear from God – especially with all they endured at the hands of foreign invaders. There was the Greek invasion under Alexander the Great. There was the successive control of Palestine by the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. Then, came the oppressive government of the Roman Empire. In 40 BC, the Romans named Herod the Great, who wasn’t even a Jew, to be King of the Jews. He was a cruel, harsh leader. When he passed off the scene in 4 BC, his sons weren’t much better. And the Jews cried out for deliverance. And all along, God was silent.
So the Jews looked back to the last time God spoke – to the book of Malachi. There, in the last two verses of the book, the last thing God said was, “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers…”
And so they began looking for Elijah to come and break the silence. They were looking for him to come before the great and terrible day of the Lord, when God would overthrow all those oppressors and restore them to their rightful place of prominence as in the days of David and Solomon. They were looking for the Messiah to follow this Elijah, who would, they supposed, stage a military overthrow and set up a kingdom. God had been silent, but they knew the silence would be broken – they were looking for the coming of His kingdom.
So with that as a backdrop, after 400 years of silence, can you imagine the excitement that came when a man, a special man, a different man, appeared. He wasn’t like any they had ever seen before. He had the look and the sound of a prophet. The crowds began coming out to him from Jerusalem and Judea to hear his message. Was God finally speaking? In preparation for the coming of the kingdom, for the coming of the Messiah, they were baptized as a sign of their repentance. Was it the time for the Messiah, the Anointed of God, to come?
That sets the stage as we jump into our study of the Gospel According to Mark. While Mark was not the next book written after Malachi – after the 400 silent years – it does introduce us to the One to come – who would reveal God to us. Mark does not begin with the birth of Jesus like Matthew and Luke. He does not begin with Jesus before time as John does. He begins with the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy – the fulfillment of the last two verses of the OT – and some others. Meaning, the story continues – there is a continuity between the Old and New Testaments. The NT is a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham – through you, all the nations of the world will be blessed. But know this, here’s what Mark wants us to know – God has come – He has revealed Himself through His Son. The story begins with the forerunner. Read the text with me – Mark 1:1-8.
There’s one coming. And He is so great, I can’t even take off His shoes. Here’s the rough outline of the text, but we’re just make our way through the story:
The Prophecy Concerning John (2-3)
The Message of John (4-5)
The Description of John (6)
The One Coming After John (7-8)
Now, who was this John called the Baptist, or the Baptizer. In all four gospels, the coming of Jesus is announced by this John. Mark jumps right into the story – I suppose he thought John such a popular figure, he didn’t need introduction. But it’s been a few years, so who was this John the Baptist?
From Luke’s gospel, we find his parents were Zacharias and Elizabeth, who was a cousin to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Zacharias was one of the many priests who took turns serving in the Temple. Luke tells us they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly before Him. But, they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were an older couple.
One day, when Zacharias was performing his priestly duties in the temple, an angel appeared and said he and Elizabeth were going to have a baby – a baby boy whom they were to name, John. And we learn some special things about John – he was likely a Nazarite from his birth, meaning he never drank wine, and he probably never shaved or cut his hair. Which is why all those paintings or movies you’ve seen portraying John show him as a shaggy character.
Now the angel also adds this important detail – John would be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. You see, this boy would have a special job to perform later in life, and so from the very beginning, he was set apart.
Back in our text in Mark, we also learn he did his preaching in the wilderness of Judea, which stretched to the east of Jerusalem down to the Jordan River. We find he wore camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. This was no doubt an intentional attempt by John to look the part of a prophet, because that’s what Elijah wore. II Kings 1:8 says of Elijah, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.”
Now, we learn some other things about this man. All four gospels say John was the fulfillment of Isaiah 40, which speaks as the voice crying in the wilderness, saying, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” Now in Mark, he actually quotes two OT passages and puts them together under Isaiah – simply citing the most important prophet. But we see these two passages:
First, he quotes Malachi 3:1 when he says, “Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way.” Actually that’s quite interesting. In Malachi 3, God is speaking and says, “I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me.” Mark changes the pronouns from Me, that is God, to You, that is Jesus. Does that mean God has come and revealed Himself to us in Jesus?
Then he quotes Isaiah 40:3 when he says, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ready the way of the LORD, make His paths straight.”
Again, interesting, for a couple of important reasons. First, the prophecy in Isaiah 40 is referring to God – to Yahweh, the covenant name for God. Now, all four gospels apply this to Jesus – how could they do that? Is it possible Jesus came as God in the flesh to reveal God to us? Other verses tell us, Jesus is in very nature God, and the exact representation of His being. You say, I wish God would appear and reveal Himself – He did. A second reason this is important is in order for Jesus to be the Messiah, there had to be one going before Him, announcing His coming. John the Baptist was that announcer – that forerunner.
Now, what about the prophecy in Malachi 4 that I talked about in our introduction – what about this Elijah thing? Was John the Baptist the Elijah to come, announcing the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord? He certainly dressed like him. But was he the one for whom the Jews waited for 400 years?
Well, yes, and no. Look at Luke 1. When the angel appeared to Zacharias to tell him he and Elizabeth were going to have John, we read in verse 17, “It is he [John] who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
That’s right out of Malachi 4. So, the angel seemed to think John would be Elijah. But we have a bit of a challenge. You see, later, when John was doing his preaching, preparing the way of the Lord, the people began to wonder who he was. They asked him, are you the Christ, to which he responded, “I am not.” They asked him, are you Elijah, to which he responded, “I am not.”
That’s a challenge. The angel said he would be the Elijah to come, but when asked if he was, John said, no. It gets worse. Over in Matthew 11, Jesus started talking about John one day, and He said, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.’ Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!…For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.”
Those words would have resounded in Jewish ears. John the Baptist is the Elijah we’ve been waiting for. We also read in Matthew 17:10-13, “And His disciples asked Him, ‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ And He answered and said, ‘Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.”
So was he or wasn’t he? The angel said John was Elijah. Jesus said John was Elijah. The disciples understood John was Elijah. But apparently the people, and John himself didn’t understand he was Elijah. So, was he, or wasn’t he? Again, the answer is yes, and no. I believe he did come in the spirit of Elijah. He did come to fulfill Malachi 4. And if the people had accepted him as the forerunner, then the fulfillment would have been complete. But they didn’t accept him, just like they didn’t accept Jesus as the Christ. If they would have accepted Jesus, He would have set up the kingdom. But they didn’t – they crucified Him, which we know, was all part of God’s plan. And so, Jesus will come again, and He will set up an earthly kingdom. And I believe His second coming will be proceeded by Elijah who will announce the great and terrible day of the Lord – that terrible day we know as the Tribulation we read about in Mark 13 and the book of Revelation.
John was a man born of a nondescript family in Jerusalem, who never drank wine, who never shaved or had a haircut, who wore simple clothing and ate simple food, and was a man full of the Holy Spirit. He appeared on the scene just like the Old Testament said he would to proclaim a message. He came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.
There have been lots of attempts to tie this baptism to ceremonial washings or even Gentile proselyte baptism. The problem is, those Gentile baptisms were just that – Gentiles, and John was baptizing Jews. Not only that, Gentiles baptized themselves – and here, John was the Baptizer. Not only that, we have no clear evidence Gentile baptism into Judaism was this early.
It seems this was perhaps a new practice – perhaps like when God gave the Old Covenant – the Law. Moses told them, go wash yourselves and your clothes in preparation. Now, John says, wash yourselves, be baptized in preparation for the coming of the New Covenant. We don’t really know. What we do know is it wasn’t Christian baptism. It was a baptism of repentance in preparation for the coming of Christ – now baptism is in the name of Christ, symbolizing His death, burial and resurrection. John’s was a baptism signifying a turning from sin and its forgiveness in preparation for the coming of the New Covenant, Christian baptism signifies the forgiveness of sin because Christ has come.
In verses 7-8, John says, there is One coming after me – I’m just the forerunner preparing the way – He is mightier or stronger or greater than I. So much so, I’m not fit to untie His sandals. Now, untying sandals and washing feet was reserved for the lowest of the low. Followers of rabbis, for example, would serve their rabbis – but not in this way. Only slaves could do that. And here, John says, I don’t even rate as high as a slave when compared to Him. Think about it – when two of the greatest men in the Old Testament, Moses and Joshua, came into the presence of God, God said, take off your sandals – the place where you’re standing is holy. Here, the greatest man who ever lived – that’s what Jesus called John – this man greater than Moses, greater than David, couldn’t even untie the sandals of Jesus.
I baptized you with water – but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. What does that mean? Six of the seven times this baptism of the Holy Spirit is used in the NT, it’s used to contrast with John’s baptism water. And the seventh time, in I Corinthians 12, Paul says we are all baptized in the Spirit – the implication is, as Christians, we’ve all been immersed in the Spirit. You see, the word baptize means to dip or to immerse. John baptized in the Jordan River, immersing those who were repenting as symbol of their repentance. But Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit – that is, He would immerse people in the Spirit. But here’s the point: in the OT, this giving of the Spirit was reserved for God Himself. Only God gives the Spirit – and yet here, Jesus does.
Back to our introduction as we close. If your heart cries out – I want to see God – if only He would appear – I want you to know, He has. Jesus came to reveal God to us. It’s interesting, even to this day, the Jews are still looking for Elijah. Every year, during Passover, Orthodox Jews observe a dinner called the Seder. And in every orthodox home, an extra place is set, a chair is kept empty. The most ornate cup, called the “cup of Elijah” is placed at the setting. At one point in the ceremony, a youngster is sent to open the door with expectancy – one day, you see, Elijah will enter, sit down, drink from the cup, and announce that Messiah is coming.
The sad truth is, Elijah has already come, and they missed it – the first time. And they missed his first announcement, the Messiah is here. They missed it, like many today. Many Jews are still waiting for Elijah – and they missed him. Many others today are waiting for something – some supernatural spiritual manifestation of God – they missed Him – God has already come – don’t miss Him.