The Forerunner’s Message

He preached, saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ ”

- Mark 1:7-8

Lest our familiarity with the four Gospels blind us to the significance of John the Baptist in his day, we should try to put ourselves in the shoes of those people who lived in John’s era and experienced his ministry firsthand. First-century Jews lived at the end of a period of prophetic silence. Since Malachi’s death in the fifth century B.C., there had been no direct word from God. Jews who understood their Scriptures knew this silence would not last forever, that Elijah was coming “before the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5). This promise generated a hope for a new prophet whom God would send just before the day of His salvation. So, a man in the wilderness dressed like Elijah was a sign that perhaps the Lord’s silence was over, that He was finally acting to defeat the Jews’ enemies and deal with the ungodliness that marked previous generations of the old covenant community (Mark 1:6; see 2 Kings 1:8).

John’s message, as recorded in today’s passage, confirmed the hopes and expectations of the faithful Jews who witnessed the first-century ministry of John. As Mark 1:7–8 explains, John the Baptist pointed not to himself as the realization of God’s promises; rather, he proclaimed that One greater than he was coming after him. Yes, it was necessary for the covenant people to prepare themselves for the Lord’s arrival by repenting for their sins, but the true redemption for which they hoped would come by way of another, namely, one who would baptize God’s people “with the Holy Spirit” (v. 8).

Notably, the Old Testament says that the bestowing of the Holy Spirit is accomplished by none other than the Creator Himself, and it also indicates that this outpouring marks the last days when the Lord brings all of His plans and purposes to fruition (Joel 2:28–32). John’s identification of Jesus as the One who bestows the Spirit on His people demonstrates that Jesus comes bearing the authority and power of God. Coupled with other texts such as Malachi 3:1, which explains that the promised messenger prepares the way for the Lord Himself, we have a powerful testimony from John regarding the deity of Christ. Furthermore, the Old Testament explains that God led His people in the wilderness by the Holy Spirit after the exodus from Egypt (Isa. 63:10–14). That John in the wilderness foresaw the Spirit coming again also points to Jesus as the leader of a new exodus, one that will accomplish an even greater work of salvation in behalf of His chosen servants.

Coram Deo

The contrast between John’s water baptism and the baptism of the Holy Spirit also points to the fact that water baptism is insufficient if it is merely an outward rite that is not accompanied by true faith. What really matters is Spirit baptism—not a second blessing of the Holy Spirit after a first baptism in water but the sovereign work of the Spirit in changing our hearts and granting us faith. That is the only kind of baptism that will save. Have you received it?

Passages for Further Study

Isaiah 32:14–20
Ezekiel 39:29
Acts 19:1–7
1 Corinthians 12:13

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