Of the many characters in the biblical story, John the Baptist has to be one of the best, doesn’t he? The camel hair clothing, the diet of locusts and honey… Be honest: you’d travel out into the desert to see what all the fuss about, wouldn’t you? I think I would.
John plays a vital role in preparing the way for the arrival of Jesus – but what is sometimes overlooked is how his ministry, as described in today’s passage, connects with the opening verse and Mark’s declarations about Jesus’ identity. As we saw yesterday, Jesus is both Messiah and Son – a human rescuer to draw us back to the Lord, and a divine rescuer to transform our hearts and renew our original calling to live as God’s special creation, made in his image.
What brings people out to the desert (v5) is unquestionably a growing excitement that the former might have arrived: the Messiah, the anointed rescuer. Many may have thought it was John himself; he certainly had the right credentials. However, he was always quick to point people away from himself towards Someone Greater (v7). He was the ‘voice of one calling’ (v3), the fulfilment of several important Old Testament prophecies that the Messiah would have a herald, someone to prepare the way (vv2-3: Mark actually quotes both Isaiah and Malachi, though he only names Isaiah – we’ll save that question for another time!).
In preparing for the Messiah, the natural response is to clear the decks spiritually, so to speak – to make a fresh start. The word ‘repent’ literally means to ‘turn around’, and although washing with water was a common practice welcoming non-Jews into the faith, it was something of a new development for Jews themselves to be washed as a sign of repentance.
The word ‘baptise’ literally means ‘dip’, and of course the early church picked it up as the simple but powerful sign of anyone coming to Christ. But, as John reminds us, there are two baptisms at work: the outward one, and the deeper one – the baptism of the heart. And this is what only the Son can do. A human rescuer can only save us so much; unless the heart is transformed, we’ll just keep repeating the cycle of temporary renewal and inevitable decline that characterised the whole history of God’s people (and the story of the Old Testament).
So, Jesus is both Messiah and Divine Son. As Son, he has the authority to wash us, not just with water, but with his Holy Spirit. To be a follower of Christ is to be washed like this daily, continually. Take a few moments today to pray for grace to be ‘dipped’ again with the Holy Spirit, that we might lead the new life that Jesus always calls us into.