The Wilderness Preacher

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (vv. 4–5).

- Mark 1:4-6

King Manasseh of Judah, who reigned in the first half of the seventh century B.C., epitomized the depths of wickedness to which the old covenant people of God had sunk. Not only did he commit idolatry as many other kings had done, but he also “burned his son as an o ering” (2 Kings 21:6) and “shed very much innocent blood” (v. 16). In these respects, he and many of the other kings and people of Israel and Judah were worse sinners than the wilderness generation who le Egypt. That generation also committed idolatry (Ex. 32), but it was not guilty of the grievous sins of murder and the other heinous acts of the monarchical period described in the Old Testament. Consequently, many old covenant prophets idealized the wilderness era, when God constituted Israel as a nation. They looked forward to a time when the Lord would reconstitute His people in the wilderness. He would give them a fresh start and save them as He had once redeemed them from Egypt (Isa. 40:3; Hos. 2:14–15).

In light of that prophetic hope, John the Baptist’s ministry in the wilderness (Mark 1:4) is particularly significant. His work marked the beginning of the true reformation of Israel, the new era of blessing the prophets anticipated. John’s ministry was also scandalous. Matthew 3:7–10 and Mark 11:27–33 indicate that the Pharisees and Sadducees never really supported John’s baptism. It went against one of their fundamental tenets: the idea that being a Jew according to the flesh—a physical descendant of Abraham—was essentially enough to have a place in God’s kingdom (Matt. 3:7–10; John 8:31–33). A baptism of repentance in the wilderness said otherwise. At the time, Jews prescribed water rituals similar to baptism for Gentiles who converted to Judaism. After all, Gentiles were unclean sinners and had to be cleansed in order to become full Jews. To require Jews to be baptized, as John did, was to proclaim that physical lineage does not make one a true member of God’s people; rather, true Israel is made up of repentant sinners who love the Lord with all that they are (Deut. 10:16; see Rom. 2:28–29).

Our Creator, as John taught by His baptism, does not save people based on physical descent; He redeems only those who repent and trust in His promises. In John’s day, the Jewish people needed a new start, a new beginning as a repentant people, because the kingdom of God was about to break in to history. They were sinners—just like the Gentiles—and they needed to return to the Lord.

Coram Deo

Jesus’ message to the Jews, and by extension to all people, is the same as John’s: Men and women can have a place in God’s kingdom only if they repent of their sins and turn to the Lord alone for salvation (Mark 1:14–15). We cannot rely on our church membership, our history of Christian service, or the faith of our parents in order to be saved. Instead, we will be redeemed only if we turn from our sin and place our faith in Christ alone for salvation.

Passages for Further Study

Exodus 19
Jeremiah 2
Hosea 13:4–5
Luke 3:1–20

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