Prepare the Way

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
    who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And 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 1:1-8 ESV

While the author never refers to himself by name anywhere in his gospel account, there was a strong consensus among early church fathers believed that John Mark was the one who provided this chronicle of the life and ministry of Jesus.

One of the earliest references to John Mark as the book’s author is found in The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus. Written in the 4th-Century, this landmark work provides a chronological history of early Christianity that spans the 1st through the 4th-Century. In it, Eusebius records that John Mark, while not a disciple of Jesus, based his gospel on eyewitness accounts, including those of the Apostle Peter.

There are additional records from the early church fathers that also mention John Mark as the book’s author. These include the mid-1st-Century to early-2nd-Century writings of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. In one of the earliest prologues to the Gospel of Mark, written somewhere between 160-180 A.D., it describes John Mark as the author and states that he wrote his gospel account while in Italy. In his classic work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus, adds that John Mark completed his work sometime after the death of Peter.

John Mark is mentioned repeatedly in the book of Acts, where his relationship with the Apostle Paul is described in great detail. John Mark was one of Paul’s disciples, who accompanied him and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Later, he would prove to be of great help and comfort to Paul during his imprisonment in Rome as he awaited trial before the emperor Nero. So, due to his close relationship with Paul, John Mark would have access to the original disciples and other eyewitnesses to Jesus’ earthly ministry.

One of the first encounters between Peter and John Mark is recorded in the book of Acts. Under pressure from the Jewish religious leaders, Herod, the king who had been placed on the throne of Israel by the Romans, had begun to round up the disciples of Jesus. He had already killed James the brother of John and had Peter thrown in prison. But God miraculously rescued Peter from his imprisonment and, upon his release, Peter made his way to the home of John Mark.

…he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. – Acts 12:12 ESV

Luke, the author of Acts, also records that John Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, but left them when they arrived in Pamphylia. He returned to Jerusalem and would later travel with Barnabas, his cousin, to Cyprus. So, John Mark was very involved in those early days of the church as the apostles took the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. He had been able to travel with and sit under the teaching of such luminaries of the faith as Paul, Peter, and Barnabas.

There is still much debate as to the dating of Mark’s gospel. If it was written after the deaths of Paul and Peter, that would place its publication somewhere around A.D. 67-68. Since there is no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, it seems likely that the book had to have written before that date.

From the content of the gospel, it appears that Mark with a Gentile audience in mind. If he wrote it from Italy, as believed by many of the early church fathers, the Gentile-oriented focus of his gospel makes more sense. He takes great pains to explain certain Jewish customs and rituals that would have been unfamiliar and strange to a Gentile readership. He incorporated Latin words and phrases that seemed aimed at a Roman audience. But his emphasis was on Gentile believers living under persecution in a predominantly Roman world. The early church found itself facing attack from the Jews as well as the pagan world. Mark would have experienced firsthand the persecution that Paul encountered from the dispersed Jewish community and the pagan cultures of the cities they visited on their first missionary journey.

Yet, despite Mark’s emphasis on a predominantly Gentile audience and his effort to communicate to them in language and terms with which they would be familiar, he opens his gospel with a quote from the Hebrew scriptures.

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
    who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’” – Mark 1:2-3 ESV

This is actually a combination of three separate passages: Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3. He blends the words of three Old Testament prophets: Moses, Malachi, and Isaiah, but attributes the quote the latter. For Mark, a proper understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry had to begin with prophecy. And these three prophetic passages each spoke of the coming Messiah of Israel. These men, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, predicted the coming of the Anointed One of God. But they also foretold of the one who would “prepare the way” for His coming. Before the Messiah would appear on the scene, His arrival would be prefaced by another, a messenger who would warn the people of His imminent arrival.

Like the other gospel writers, Mark was interested in establishing from the outset the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. He was Jesus the Christ or Messiah (the word “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of Messiah). Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. He was Jesus, a man was born in the city of Bethlehem, but He was also the Christ, the Son of God. Which means He was fully divine.

According to Mark, God had sent a messenger or, literally, an angel (angelos) to prepare the way for the Messiah. And he describes exactly who this “angel” was. He was a man and not a heavenly being. His name was John and he appeared in the wilderness of Judea, preaching a baptism of repentance. In essence, John was calling the people to be baptized, but it was a baptism characterized by repentance. In the Greek language, the word “repentance” is metanoia and it means “to change the mind.” He was calling the Jews to change their minds concerning a wide range of issues, including their concept of what it means to be righteous, their expectations concerning the Messiah, their understanding of their relationship with God, and their need for forgiveness.

We know from Matthew’s gospel the basic content of John’s message.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 3:2 ESV

And upon His arrival, Jesus would pick up this very same message.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” – Mark 1:15 ESV

The basic gist of their message was that the long-awaited Messiah had finally appeared and was bringing His Kingdom with Him. And Mark indicates that John’s preliminary declaration that the Kingdom of God was near was met with an enthusiastic response.

…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. – Mark 1:5 ESV

For the Jews, the coming of the Kingdom of God would be accompanied by the arrival of the Messiah. For them, the coming Messiah would be a king, just like the great warrior-king, David. He would be a deliverer and a military leader who would restore Israel’s fortunes. For centuries, the people of Israel had suffered under the heavy hand of a litany of foreign powers who had subjugated and persecuted them. The most recent iteration of Gentile domination over the people of God was the Romans. The land of Judah was occupied by Roman soldiers who enforced the laws of the empire, protected the interests of the emperor, and ensured that the Jews remained compliant and docile.

So, the people of Israel longed for the Messiah to come. It had been centuries since the nation of Judah had fallen to the Babylonians. And while a remnant of the people taken captive to Babylon had returned to the land and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem and the temple of God, the only king they had known was their current one, Herod, the puppet king placed on the throne by the Roman emperor. He was actually an Edomite, a descendant of Esau. And while his title of “King of the Jews” had been given to him by the Roman Senate, his reign was never accepted by the Jews. They considered him to be a usurper to the throne who tried to gain their favor through a series of ambitious building projects, including the expansion of and improvements to the temple.

But as a pawn of the Romans, and due to his love of power, Herod placed his own personal needs ahead of the nation. So, when John the Baptist appeared on the scene preaching a message of repentance because the kingdom of God was near, the people immediately assumed something great was about to happen. Their hopes were raised that Messiah was near and their days of oppression and subjugation would soon be over.

This wild-eyed, strangely dressed preacher made an impression on his audience.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. – Mark 1:6 ESV

His bizarre attire gave him the demeanor of an Old Testament prophet and his message of repentance echoed those of his predecessors. But when he spoke of the One to come, he added a new twist to the description of the Messiah.

“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 ESV

John’s sudden appearance on the scene had gotten the peoples’ attention. It had been over 400 years since they had heard from God. For four centuries, there had been no prophets speaking on behalf of God. He had gone silent. But now, with the arrival of John, it was as if God was speaking again. But John wanted his audience to know that there was something even more amazing about to take place. John’s arrival on the scene would pale in comparison to the coming of the Messiah. He would be greater, more glorious, and have a ministry that was far more significant than anything John had done.

While John could offer a physical baptism that represented or illustrated cleansing from sin. The Messiah would offer a far greater form of baptism that would actually remove all sin in preparation for the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God.

tEnglish Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson