In his swift movement of the account of Jesus’ life, Mark introduces John the Baptist as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the forerunner, who will be like Elijah, announcing the coming of the Messiah. Then in Mark 1:4, Mark introduces us to the ministry and the message of John the Baptist. It says, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John baptized and explained that his Baptism was for repentance and the forgiveness of sin.

His ministry of Baptism was unique. Many commentators try to connect it to the ceremonial washings practiced by the Old Testament Jews or other sects that have separated themselves from the mainstream of Judaism, like those at Qumran. But Hughes has it right when he says, “The first thing we should note about this Baptism was that it was totally radical. The notable Marcan scholar William Lane says that the Baptism was wholly novel. No one else had ever done it. The only thing that even came close was that Gentile converts to Judaism were baptized. However, that Baptism was a ritual washing from all the heresy of the past. The Jews were now being asked to do something they had never done before in their history! Jews being baptized. Unheard of! This was why John was called “The Baptizer.” There had never been anyone like him.”[1] One of the unique characteristics of John’s Baptism was that he performed it on others. In contrast, the earlier “cleansings” were performed by the individual themselves. From the language used in the New Testament and from early church practices, it’s hard to argue that this was anything other than immersion, as the word “baptize” in the Greek literally means. There were periods when sprinkling or pouring was practiced, but it was usually during times of drought or famine when water was scarce. According to the text, when John baptized Jesus, Jesus “went down into the water.” When he came up from the water, the Father spoke from heaven, commending Jesus as His well-beloved Son.

John preached “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” His address was to the Jews. This may have been one reason the religious leaders rejected John’s message. They were already part of the family of God by right of being a Jew. They did not consider themselves to be sinners. The godless pagans around them were sinners, but not the Jews. To accept that would require a radical conversion. The idea of “repentance” is a change of mind. It was explicitly a change of mind that ritual, religious affiliation, or physical lineage would procure a right standing with God. France observes, “It is indeed those who are already disciples who are most often called to such reorientation: the ‘new mindset’ for which Jesus calls is not learned in a moment at the initial point of commitment but requires a lifetime of μετάνοια (the Greek word for repentance). But it is to such a revolution of attitudes and values that Jesus will call people when he announces the coming of the kingdom of God, and μετάνοια appropriately expresses the idea. The continuity in this respect between the ministries of John and Jesus (and his disciples) is, therefore, noteworthy.”[2] He is correct, as we see in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus repeats a similar call. Jesus says in Luke 24:47. Before His ascension, He calls His disciples to the great commission and says that the “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Even today, people look to rituals, religious affiliation, or lineage as their primary mode of connection with God. Many see repentance as being a place we go once, and then we’re righteous. That’s not biblical teaching. Repentance is the place we live! Living with the continual understanding of our sinful state before God leads us to truly worship the glory of the salvation offered to us through faith in Jesus Christ.

[1] Hughes, R. Kent. 1989. Mark: Jesus, Servant, and Savior. Vol. 1. Preaching the Word. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] France, R. T. 2002. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.