Have you ever heard of the following people? Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Deepak Chopra, Suze Orman, or Nate Berkus? Do you know what they all have in common? They were all the recipients of “the Oprah Effect.” What is that? It is Oprah’s immense power to influence public opinion. Because of her endorsement, each of these people became household names and enormously successful in their business. Oprah’s endorsements are trusted not because of her popularity alone. Many popular people do not have “the Oprah Effect.” Her endorsements are trusted because the people she exalts have truly changed her life. Because they have helped her, she knows they can help others. Oprah genuinely wants people to live better lives and so her endorsements become instant successes.
As we turn to the first few verses of Mark, I find myself wondering if John the Baptist was an ancient version of a modern-day influencer like Oprah? For those of us who come to the New Testament to learn about Jesus, we wonder why we are reading about John? Why is John special? John was special because like Oprah, he genuinely wanted to see people change. Mark uses the word repentance to describe John’s message. Repentance is a change of heart that leads to a change of behavior. John’s message not only altered the lives of thousands, he had that special “effect,” like Oprah, to pass authoritative endorsement on to Jesus. John’s message prepared people’s hearts for Jesus, and his support lent Jesus his own influence. Let’s see what Mark has to say about John the Baptist.
John was prophetic.
In verses 2-3, Mark teaches that John is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. He writes that the good news of Jesus begins with John because that was the way God foretold it would happen. He credits Isaiah with the prophecy, but Mark blends together ancient words about God’s messenger also from Moses and Malachi to compile his words about the prediction of John.
Mark 1:1-4 says,
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God is just as it had been written in Isaiah the prophet. Consider this. I send my messenger before your presence who will prepare your way: the voice of one crying in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his path straight!” John the Baptizer appeared in the desert and he was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
In Exodus, God sent an angel, a messenger, to show the Israelites the way into the promised land and to clear out their enemies before them. In Malachi, God’s messenger taught the priests to serve with justice. In Isaiah, the messenger crying in the desert would prepare the way for Yahweh, God Himself. Mark compiles all these ideas and applies them to John. John was predetermined as a messenger to clear the way, to make the path straight, to remove all the obstacles for Jesus.
John understood that his job was to be the opening act. He knew he was not the headliner, he was only there to warm the crowd for Jesus. And so his message was geared to open the hearts of the people through repentance. He cleared the path for Jesus by getting people ready for change. The people who came to John longed for something to be different in their lives. They wanted to be different. John taught that the key to change is to name the things in your life that need to be changed, to confess them.
John’s method was water immersion. What would make everyone go out to the wilderness to be baptized? The root of baptism is purification. John offered a physical act of immersing into water to mark those who longed for change. The Jews who came for baptism understood about ritual purification. The religious laws they followed mandated self-administered purification rites for all sorts of things. They also had rituals surrounding handwashing and foot washing. John was building on these ideas and connecting them with the longing they had inside their hearts for real change. John’s baptism marked a new life and new community of people that were determined to leave their old ways behind and to begin to live differently.
John was popular.
Mark describes John’s popularity in hyperbolic terms. In verses 5-6, Mark says,
And all the Judeans and everyone from Jerusalem were going out to him and being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. And John was wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and he is eating locust and honey from the field.”
We moderns have lost the sense of how authoritative John was in Mark’s day. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus confirms Mark’s words about John’s popularity. Josephus writes, “Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words.” The Roman appointed ruler of Judea, Herod Antipas, thought John was influential enough to raise a Jewish rebellion. Herod was afraid of John and so he had him executed. Josephus writes that after suffering a massive defeat in battle, Herod was plagued by rumors that God was punishing him for killing John. Josephus records those rumors and gives us a glimpse of the influence John still held decades after his death.
All of the four gospels in the New Testament begin Jesus’ story with John, because John the Baptist was legendary. If you had never heard of John before this brief introduction of Mark’s, you can still pick up on the fact that John was a powerful and unique figure. His clothing and diet are described to appeal to the prophet trope begun in the Old Testament. Prophets were known to live away from population centers and they wore animal skins (Zechariah 13:4). They were poor and often mistreated (Hebrews 11:37). Elijah, the most famous of Israel’s miracle working prophets, is described as wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist as well (2 Kings 1:8). Mark is deliberately recalling these stereotypes to build an image of John as a prophet because everyone believed him to be one (Mark 11:32). When John spoke, people listened.
John got people ready for Jesus.
So, John is wearing the clothes of a prophet, and he is baptizing those who confessed what needed to change,
and he is preaching, saying, “The one who is stronger than me comes behind me, whom I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:7-8
Jesus was not a surprise. God had prepared the way for him by sending John. John created a favorable environment for Jesus through a physical ministry of water baptism that reflected the spiritual ministry that Jesus would bring. If John’s baptism of repentance developed an atmosphere of change, Jesus’ baptism of the Holy Spirit transformed people’s lives from the inside out. John could only point out that change was needed and give the encouragement of cleansing with physical water. Jesus would bring true change, real forgiveness and living water.
John is special because he wanted to see people’s lives change and he knew Jesus could do it. John used his considerable influence to endorse Jesus. We may not have the “John Effect” in our own lives. I know that I do not have the considerable influence that John had, but each of us does have an impact on those around us. We can hear the message of John, even today, and become people ready for change. Like John, we point the way to Jesus.