Mark 1:1-8 “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way’ – ‘a voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”‘ And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and 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. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: ‘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.'”
Mark’s gospel commences with the word ‘beginning’, and we are taken back to Genesis chapter 1 and verse 1 and the beginning of God’s acts of creation. But Mark is going to tell us about the beginnings of Jesus’ acts which will establish a new creation – a new heavens and new earth which will be pervaded by righteousness. The Old Testament begins in paradise but it ends in a wilderness. The New Testament begins with Jesus the last Adam entering a wilderness and it ends with paradise. The first thirteen verses of Mark’s gospel are the preface of the beginning of this new creation. We are being told how the gospel about Jesus Christ appeared on the earth, since which time it has filled the whole world. It has made multitudes of people new creations and so giving us an earnest of the future regeneration of all things. All this had its beginning with a herald suddenly appearing to announce the imminent arrival of a King. This King was introduced to his subjects in an extraordinary way, by being baptized in a sinners’ baptism in a wilderness, and then immediately being savagely tempted and tested by Satan. That was the unusual beginning of the coming of the King, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
1. THE ARRIVAL OF JOHN.
We are told six things about John:
i] John was the promised one. It was not by John’s own volition that he appeared as a preacher at this time. A man may be so moved by the condition of his community that one day he decides to go and stand in the city centre and preach to the people as they pass him by. But this initiative to get up and preach in the desert region did not lie within John but this proclamation was planned long before by God. He had prophesied that his special messenger would one day appear. Two prophets had announced this, Malachi, 500 years or so earlier, and Isaiah, two centuries before him. In this plan of God, the Messianic King would come, but he would be preceded by a messenger whom God would send. Though there had been no prophets for hundreds of years God was biding his time but still in charge of his world. Then God acts. The word was not in vain. God does what he has promised to do and John appears.
“With God things don’t just happen,
Everything by him is planned.”
ii] John was a herald. The Greeks had heralds. In Homer we meet men of dignity who hold a high position in a royal court. The king sends for one of them: “I want you to go to Athens and take this message from me to that city.” What a responsibility, being sent to proclaim a royal message. Pharaoh made heralds run before Joseph’s chariot in Egypt and cry to the people, “Bow the knee!” Nebuchadnezzar’s herald cried, “Fall down and worship the golden image.” Hezekiah sent heralds through the land saying, “Come to Jerusalem and keep the Passover.” John the Baptist was one of the King’s heralds telling the people that the King is on his way. A herald was a man on a royal mission. Every Christian is a herald of King Jesus. As a hymnist put it:
“Thy heralds brought glad tidings
To greatest, as to least;
They bade men rise, and hasten
To share the great king’s fast . . .
Their gospel of redemption
Sin pardoned, man restored,
Was all in this enfolded:
One Church, one faith, one Lord.” E.H. Plumptre (1821-91).
iii] John was the one who prepared the people for the coming of the King; “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (v.3). This year has been the Jubilee of the reign of Queen Elizabeth and she has crossed the land from Cornwall in the south west to the north of Scotland and everywhere she has gone the local authorities have been told to prepare for her coming. Smarten things up. Fill in the pot holes. Straighten out crooked places. Soon the smell of fresh paint is everywhere that the Monarch is to appear. That was John’s vocation. It is rebellious contempt for the King of Kings to be told that on the morning of the Lord’s own day he will come here to deal with us sinners and that we refuse to prepare ourselves for such an encounter. A herald has a sense of expectancy when he tells the people to prepare. He not only makes sure he serves his master faithfully but he looks earnestly for a response.
iv] John was the King’s messenger (v.2), in other words he was an ambassador. He bore a message from his monarch. He had a certain dignity and considerable self-control. He had to deliver the message with the same accuracy and even the same tone of voice in which his king had given it to him. As a mouthpiece for his master he dare not add his own interpretation. Then he could speak with the authority of the one who had sent him. “Don’t listen to me for my own sake, but you must heed what I have to say because I am telling you God’s message.”
v] John was a voice – “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (v.3). Men came to John the Baptist and they wanted John the Baptist to talk to them about John the Baptist. But John the Baptist wouldn’t talk to them about John the Baptist. He said, “a man can receive only what is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). He was just a voice. “I must decrease,” he said, “and he must increase”. He was pointing away from himself all the time to his King. He told his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The one who came after him would be much more powerful than John. How unworthy he was to do the most menial task for him. Only the weakest kind of personality makes more fuss of the news reader than the news that he declares. He may be announcing war, governments collapsing, and murder on the streets, and yet some weak men and women listening or looking are captivated by his appearance not what he is saying: “He looks unhappy today . . . I wish he cut his hair a bit shorter . . . I like his tie.” The man is a voice, that’s all. John was bringing a message from God as the servant of the King. If at the end of a sermon you don’t know one more thing about the personal life of the minister then you are none the poorer for that and probably much richer. We live in a day when people ache to be famous, whether or not they have any talent that might justify fame. This explains why they are willing to sell so many details of their private lives; most of them have little else to sell. Politicians in particular are not very interesting people, but neither are preachers. The cult of the preacher is a loathsome cult. The preacher is a shout that tells of the King of kings.
vi] John dressed in prophetic plainness: “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (v.6). John wore the clothes of the poorest people made of rough camel’s hair gathered from thorn bushes. His belt was not fancy, just a strip of sun-dried skin from some dead beast. He ate what he could gather in the desert, locusts and honey. He was like the poorest bushman. John had assumed the dress and style of Elijah the Tishbite who also called the people to national repentance. John’s lifestyle was a protest against the godless materialism of this holy people living in God’s own promised land. Come out from this decadent culture, repent, and live a godward life, it said. Even his chosen meeting place, the wilderness, brought the same message because it was into a wilderness that Israel came from Egypt to meet with God: “Let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God” (Ex. 3:18). “We’ve been sinful rebels and we want to begin again,” the people said as they came to meet the Lord’s prophet, John. So the truth to the nation was coming to them through the whole person of John, not just through his voice. It came through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being and the chosen location of his preaching. He embodied his message. His words saturated his being and dominated his life. There wasn’t a membrane as thin as Indian paper you could put between John’s life and John’s words. Even in his diet and clothing he had become the message he brought from God, so seriously did he take his calling. Little wonder the people also took him seriously and flocked to hear the voice of God. This was no fraud, no self seeking entertainer but holy sincerity bringing a message from the throne of the universe: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe” (Jn. 1:6&7, A.V.).
2. JOHN CAME BAPTIZING.
“And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v.4).
i] Baptism was a totally radical act. Now we know that proselytes, that is, Gentiles who embraced the Jewish religion were normally ceremonially washed. This symbolised the cleansing away of old heathen beliefs and the embracing of the Lord Jehovah as their God. That baptism didn’t make a man in every respect a Jew but the washing was an indispensable ceremonial accompaniment whenever Gentiles entered the Jewish church. So there were some antecedents and roots in certain practices already in existence in Judaism. We also discover in the Old Testament ritual ceremonial washings particularly for the priests and levites.
What John did was utterly different. The people he baptized were not Gentile converts, they were all circumcised Jews. The people he baptized were not exclusively members of the tribe of Levi, priests and levites, but people from all over Israel. John took proselyte baptism and insisted that not the heathen but the sons of Abraham themselves must be baptized. John’s theme was the forgiveness of sins, and he told these Jews that before this privilege they were no different in this respect than pagans. They needed to undergo a change. They had to be converted. The themselves had to virtually become proselytes. In other words, what had never been done before, John initiated. He insisted that these Jewish people, with all their pride that Abraham was their father, and all their smugness that they weren’t Gentile dogs, were being constrained by God’s messenger to go through a ritual which outcast strangers from Greece and Rome had to endure. They had never been asked to do this in their entire history. Jews being baptized? Unheard of! This was why John was called “The Baptizer.” There had never been a prophet like him. At this point of forgiveness John told them that their Jewishness was of no consequence at all. Circumcision and being born into the right race and tribe made no difference. They were in the same state as pagan Europeans and Asians and Africans. What a sense of privilege these Jews possessed. Weren’t they in an eternal covenant with Jehovah? They had the law, the Temple, the sacrifices and offerings, the Sabbath and the feast days. They had the oracles of God, and yet John came to them and told them that all that made no difference. It is not, at the point of forgiveness, enough. There has to be more than Jewishness. It was a utterly revolutionary message. The coming of this King was not to improve their lot and make a better covenant. It was to make everything new.
Essential baptism for every Jew was like a sleeper having cold water thrown over him. “Wake up! The day is dawning. You must get ready! Out of bed!” What a shock to their system. They were expecting the Messiah to come and he would sound a trumpet and raise an instant army and lead them to triumph over Rome and all their enemies. Instead of this their God sends a prophet who tells them – of all people – to repent and be baptized. John was a thunderous awakening shout, disturbing the dreams of Caiaphas and Annas and King Herod. It shattered the dream of freedom just around the corner when Messiah came. “Get ready for the greatest moment in Jewish history.” Hooray! “And get ready by . . . repenting and being baptized!” Repenting? “Come from your slavery to sin into the wilderness. Leave behind your Egypt and head for the kingdom of God because the King is almost here.”
John might well say the same thing to ourselves. At the point of the forgiveness of our sins our ecclesiastical connections make no difference. Our baptism, our confirmation, our coming to the bread and wine, papal blessings we have received (whatever they might be), the hands of men in religious costumes placed upon our heads makes no difference. The church we belong to, the piety of those who have surrounded us, the impeccability of our orthodoxy, the blamelessness of our lives all makes no difference. John was standing before the religious pride of his day. He was addressing the chosen race, and he was telling them that they had to enter the great river Jordan just as Namaan the Gentile leper has been plunged under it. Unless they were to experience all God’s waves and billows overwhelming like a Noah’s flood they had to repent and be plunged into Jordan. Just as the very heathen became beneficiaries of the covenants and promises of mercy by repenting and submitting to baptism they had to do the same.
Our Lord Jesus Christ took up the same message when a Jewish teacher of the law came to see him one night. Nicodemus took his religion seriously and he acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher sent from God who did wonderful signs, but immediately Jesus told him, “All that is not enough. Nicodemus, you must be born from above. You must undergo a saving change. You must be plunged into the depths of contrition. You must be washed, renewed and emerge a new creation. Unless you are born of water and the Spirit you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus was saying it into the face of Jewish pride. He says it to all human self-righteousness and the spiritual arrogance and complacency of man. Jesus addresses human morality and tells it to be plunged into the river, the waters of regeneration. Now between Jew and Gentile there is no eternal difference because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
So John is addressing the most privileged people on the whole planet. He is speaking to the most righteous and ethically conscious men and women. He is looking into the eyes of religious attainment and integrity, and he is telling them that they need to enter the river of rebirth. They must know true conversion. They must display radical change in the depths of their being.
ii] Baptism is a baptism of repentance (v.4). In other words, the rite itself is not enough. The ceremony alone will not suffice. Even if it is the holiest messenger sent from the throne of God who is the administrator, and he pronounces the correct formula, the rite itself is not enough to save a man. John didn’t have the power to change the heart. It was not enough to be circumcised. It was not enough to be a religious. It was not enough to be baptized. There must be more than that. There must be repentance. “Turn around!” John is saying. “Turn to the Word! Turn to the coming King! Prepare for an open-ended encounter with him! Turn or burn! Right in the very depths of our souls, there, deep in our understanding and emotions and decisions, there has to be a change of mind about our own journey, our own understanding of life, our attainments, and the moral and spiritual quality of our lives. We have to take decisive action and move to this conclusion that our lives are indefensible. It is all exceedingly personal and individual. When God addresses men and women in his word he includes me, in fact how the rest think and act is unimportant. When he says, “There is none righteous, no not one,” then he is speaking those words to me, and he is speaking those words to you, even the most respectable and religious man here. It becomes a matter of conviction. In many ways that is the most important belief in my mind, that my life is wrong, and I have to undergo the most radical re-evaluation about myself.
John is saying that it will not do simply to have a burst of religious sincerity, go out to the desert, have a good cry, get baptized and go home again. There has to be that change of direction from now on. It begins with a confession of sin that starts deep in one’s own heart: “God be merciful to me, the sinner.” My life is soiled and needs to be washed. I am emotionally disturbed by how I’ve lived. I am upset because of my sins. My heart is broken.. People may come to me and, “Why on earth are you so sad? You have health, family, a business and many privileges of all kinds and yet your face is so long. Why?” “My sins,” I say, “My life is an utter mess. I don’t know what I’m living for. Nothing gives me peace. I feel absolutely wretched.” “Good,” John says. “Those are the ones I am baptizing. Their sin has disturbed them giving them real anguish. They can’t sleep and are overwhelmed by their own inadequacy. It’s their sins that have driven them to me. Great!” John is saying that the only road to reconciliation with God leads through repentance and conviction of sin. Here are an exercised people who are determined by the strength of the living God to change, and turn right around. That was John’s message to the crowds that came out to him, that if they had seen that their biggest problem was their guilt, and their great need was forgiveness then there had to be a turn around, a deep sorrow, a repentance, a change of heart and lifestyle, an abandoning of worldly, sinful and arrogant habits, a total change of every wrong attitude to the lusts of the flesh and the pride of life and a revolution of priorities.
That was John’s baptism of repentance, and I wonder if today we might come before the Holy God and take stock of the implications of that, and disabuse our minds of all our prejudices towards religion, and ask ourselves how is it with us about the gift of forgiveness from God. Have we received it? Do we know with any certainty whether our sins, though they have been like scarlet, are now as white as snow? Have we sought this with anguish of heart until we know we have found it? Let our own repentance be commensurate with a message to us from the living God, with a desert place, and many others longing to be forgiven, with public baptism and acknowledgement that we are sinners.
How John preached this message. It was bound by a consciousness that the time was short. Those words on the chapel clock face me every Sunday, “The time is short,” they say. John was saying that the King was even now on his way, that they were all living against a deadline, and so there was need of imminent repentance. Hear one of John’s sermons. Listen to the urgency and fearless intensity of his preaching: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful that I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry, he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:7-12). Those words are powerful, but what must it have been like not to read a report – however inspired – but to have been there hearing it? Think of that sermon, not in its summary form, but amplified and applied to the vast multitudes who came there. One estimate is that 300,000 people went out to the desert to hear John.
I was reading what J.C.Ryle wrote about the ministry of Daniel Rowlands in the 18th century a dozen miles from where I am standing now, in the hamlet of Llangeitho where less than a thousand people live. He says, “Rowlands was made a blessing to hundreds of souls. People used to flock to hear him preach from every part of the Principality of Wales, and to think nothing of travelling fifty or sixty miles on foot for the purpose. On sacrament Sundays it was no uncommon thing for him to have 1500, or 2000, or even 2500 communicants. The people on these occasions would go together in companies, like the Jews going to the temple feast in Jerusalem, and would return home afterwards singing hymns and psalms on their journeys, caring nothing for fatigue” (J.C.Ryle, “Five Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century”, The Banner of Truth, 1960, London, p.91). Thus it was with the preaching of John, but a hundred-fold greater in numbers though lasting just for six months. Consider that the prophet John is sent by God, and has been filled with the Spirit of God from his mother’s womb. He looks at these people and he tells them that they are living at a moment of national crisis and he tells them what to do. Turn in true repentance – produce fruit to show its real – for that’s how you escape the coming wrath. “You tax collectors, God is watching you. Be fair. You must answer to God. You soldiers, God is watching you. Be content with your wages.” He spoke of individual sins and he really laid it on them. “Get baptized if you are real.” He was utterly fearless and spared no one. “John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done” (Lk. 3:19). That meant the end of John’s public ministry. Herod sent his soldiers to arrest John and lock him up in prison.
Have we the grace to stand before the imminence of God in judgment and take stock of our lives? It is not distinctly Christian truth to say that the life of man hurtles by. That is a commonplace. Yet has it no bearing upon the urgency of repentance? We stand before the coming of God the King, and what are we doing about our sin? Wasn’t it King Richard II who muttered, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”? John was telling these people, “Your inheritance and traditions? What are they? Don’t rely on them a moment longer. You must come to the washing of regeneration.” He is saying to them that there is no baptism without repentance. The King is coming! Repent!
3. JOHN CAME PREACHING.
John stood in the wilderness all alone. Only later he gathered disciples around him. His first congregations consisted of thorn bushes, rocks, camels and conies. A voice sounding in a wilderness. God did not send him to speak outside the palaces of the kings and tetrachs, the high priests and consuls but his post was a desert. Then in space-time history something remarkable happened. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrach of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert” (Luke 3:1&2), and there in the desert, where the word of God came to him, he declared it.
It is like that with us today. Something like that has to happen here. The word of God has to come with power and the Holy Spirit and with much assurance. The gospel has to be declared with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. There has to be an awakening, an outburst of divine energy, which manifests itself in our being moved and disturbed by the greatness of God and the ugliness of our own sins. Advertising and promotion out there will never awaken the community. The word of God must come here fresh from the throne of the Almighty. It must come hissing hot. We cry for the rushing mighty wind. We cry for the coming of the gentle dove. When he is come the community will come out for this word.
John preached on two great themes:
i] The greatness of Christ. He pointed to the glories of the person of the coming King. “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (v.7). The lowest servant ‘below stairs’ had this task of taking off the sandals of new guests and washing the filth of the streets – all the animal dirt – off their feet. It was the most degrading of tasks that one human being could perform to another. It was an act so low that a man’s personal slave was not expected to perform this duty for his master. In other words, it was an act beneath the dignity of a slave. John was confessing, “I am not worthy to be less than the slave of this man.” John was a very great person by every human standard. At that time he was the greatest man in the world, the last of the prophets and the precursor of religious reformation. Yet there was this emphasis, that Jesus Christ is of a different order of greatness, a different kind of bring from John. They were not brothers. They were not on the same standing at all. There was a chasm between them. Jesus wasn’t simply bigger, wiser, stronger and greater. The Christ was different, belonging to a different order. Here was the presence of a new force; the addition of a new dimension to human history. Here was a different order of being. It is like trying to slip Jesus into a book of the 100 great men of history, but he doesn’t fit in with all the rest, because when he speaks the winds obey, he claims to be one with God, he rises from the dead. He doesn’t fit into any categories we can devise. Put any human being alongside him and that person shrinks and falls on his face. He is a different species, a different genus, a different order of reality, whether it is Abraham, Moses, Mohammed, Mozart, Shakespeare the Lord Jesus stands alone.
You go back to the opening verses of this gospel, this alleged simple gospel of Mark, not, men say, a ‘theological gospel’ like the fourth gospel, but a gospel of the Jesus of history. Yet what do we find in this gospel? Mark says that John the Baptist was sent as a messenger telling people to prepare the way for . . . whom? For Jesus? Of course that is true, but that is not what Mark tells us. He takes a great Old Testament passage from the prophet Isaiah where the prophet is talking about the coming of Jehovah, Isaiah chapter 40 and verse 3, and he applies that to Jesus. John is the voice of preparation and Jesus the one whose way has to be prepared, and surely that is the whole grandeur of this message. As John points to this Mighty One he is telling us that his greatness is so different because he is Jehovah himself: he is the Lord. Not only the ‘lord’ in Greek and Roman thinking, but the Lord in biblical thinking. And that is the end of the so called ‘Jehovah’s Witness’ cult, because Mark is bearing witness that Jehovah is Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the God of the burning bush. He is the God of the glories of Sinai. He is the God Isaiah saw in the temple – as the apostle John tells us: “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him” (Jn. 12:41). Another nail in the coffin of the so-called Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Let me take this a little further. How does this gospel commence? “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Surely there again is greatness, the only begotten Son of God, of whom we are told that God spared not his own Son, but sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. His own Son! Baby fish are 100% fish, and baby birds are 100% birds, and baby animals are 100% animals. My children are 100% human beings. So God’s Son is not 90% divine but 100% divine, and immediately Mark’s gospel is addressing the greatest question in the whole world, “Who is he? Whose son is he? Who is Jesus of Nazareth?” and before we have gone 60 words into this gospel Mark tells us that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that he is the Lord.
That is the key to all that follows in every mighty act he performs and all the ways he fulfils his office as a teacher sent from God. “From where has he got this power to give sight to a man born blind, and calm the seas, and exorcise the demons, and speak as if he knew God face to face? And it is all rendered intelligible and understood in Mark’s initial concerns to make plain that Jesus is the Son of God and the Lord. That is the fundamental challenge at the doorstep of Mark, and you can fall over it so that it becomes a stumbling block and a rock of offence, or you can enter into a life of walking with him and serving him as your God. I say that all the rest of Mark’s gospel – the miracles and the claims – are absurd unless this is true. The primary demand Mark makes on my mind is the message of the deity of Jesus of Nazareth. Do you believe it? That Mary’s boy-child is also God the Son?
ii] The Work of Christ. John the Baptist assures them that the coming King “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (v.8). This is the promise John makes, repeated by Jesus himself (Acts 1:5). The Spirit is not the opportunity, nor the responsibility, nor the privilege. He is the promise. He comes as a gift not a challenge. He comes with all the happy associations of a present that takes our breath away at its grace and magnificence, moving us to delight, utterly without price, cost or conditions – a gift graciously bestowed by Jesus, not a pledge obtained by negotiation. The Spirit is never achieved nor ‘obtained’, he is always a gift. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit:” it is an amazing phrase and justly famous. Though the words “Holy Spirit baptism” occur nowhere in the Bible this phrase ‘to baptize with the Holy Spirit’ occurs here and in the parallel passages in the other gospels, and also in the appropriate chapters in the book of Acts. They also occur as a concept in Paul’s letter to the congregation in Corinth where the apostle writes that “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body” (I Cor. 12:12). It is a familiar phrase, and also a hijacked phrase. But this description of the work of Christ as pouring out his Spirit on a barren world is found in other places in different words. I suppose that the most clear teaching is found in Paul’s letter to Titus where he tells him, God “saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour” (Tit. 3:5&6). Titus, stuck on a Gentile island in the Mediterranean knows there the baptizing work of the Lord of all. Here we are, thousands of miles from the Jordan and centuries later, and he is pouring out his Spirit on us and every nation in the world today. That is what is being prophesied here in our text as John says: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
All men and women have two problems, their guilt, and secondly their hostility to God. The guilt is dealt with through Christ’s death as the Lamb of God, while the hostility is dealt with by the pouring out of the Spirit on us by the exalted Lord. That’s why Jesus came, to redeem us and also to give us a new nature. Of sin he is the double cure. But John the Baptist now is emphasising this fact that the Lord came so that the Holy Spirit might be secured for his people. Christ came that the blessing promised to Abraham might come to the Gentiles, and that they might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Christ poured out his blood for us that he might pour out his Spirit upon us. The land of Israel at the time of John had lost its connection with its Lord. There had been a decline, even since the time of John’s birth thirty years earlier when there was a remnant waiting for the redemption of Israel. The people know little of the power and comfort of the word of God until John appeared and began to preach. “Christ,” he said, “will come and these hearts of stone will be changed. The Spirit will come in abundance on Jerusalem and the land of Israel. The coming one is more powerful than I to do this.”
What happened at Pentecost? Upon every Christian in the world at that moment the Spirit of God came, sent to them personally and individually, without exception and without qualification. They all rose that morning without him, and that night each of them went to bed with him. They were all different types of personality and all at different stages of understanding, but the Holy Spirit overlooked none of them. It was an abundant outpouring by the exalted Lord Jesus, and that established the new pattern. It defined a principle that from that moment onwards, one could not become a Christian without the Holy Spirit sent by the Lord, without being baptised by Christ with the Spirit. It was not John who did this, nor was it the apostles who were able to baptize with the Spirit. It was not angels nor even God the Father who poured him forth, it was Jesus Christ who did it. This is his ceaseless and delightful work. He gives the Spirit as the life-giver to those who are dead. He gives him as the advocate who bears witness to Christ’s glory. He gives him as the sanctifier who makes holy and clean the people of God. He gives him as the illumination that enables us to understand the Bible. He gives him as the guide who leads us through trials and blessings safely home. The Spirit is the redemptive energy present at the heart of the church. He gives him as the unifier so that Jews and Greeks become brothers. So Paul considers the world wide activity of the Spirit of God in rebirth and renewal – he is poured out on us abundantly, he says. Not a Christian exists anywhere in the world today lacking the person of the Spirit, and the gifts of the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit.
In some places and at certain favoured times the Spirit comes like a waterfall in super-abundance. It was like that in Wales a century ago – a Niagara. So it was at the Reformation and during the 18th century. At other periods there is more of a steady stream, but always the Spirit comes, because always Jesus pours him forth, but more and more of his life-giving and refreshing work we long to know.
“Baptise the nations far and nigh,
The triumphs of the cross record.
The name of Jesus glorify
Till every nation call him Lord.” (James Montgomery 1777-1854).
So, when I ask you if Christ has poured out his Spirit on you then I am asking you whether you are a real Christian . . . a mere Christian . . . a true Christian. I am asking you whether you have more than some knowledge of the teaching of Christianity, or of how to live a Christian life, or whether you go to church, but this: have you seen your defilement of sin so that you need to be forgiven and cleansed? Have you seen that only through Jesus Christ is this attainable? Have you heard what John said, that King Jesus gives the Holy Spirit in cleansing and baptism to sinners, to rid your soul of the domination of sin and remove your weakness and despair?
“‘Though John never performed a miraculous sign, all that John said about this man was true.’ And in that place many believed in Jesus” (John 10:41 & 42). May it be so in this place too.
29th September 2002 GEOFF THOMAS