Mark 1:2-3

The Message of the Baptist

Mark 1:2-4 – The Role of the Baptist

Just as was written in the prophet Isaiah,
“Look, I am sending my messenger before you.  He will make the path for you.
A voice crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make his tracks straight”, 

Mark’s version of good news began dramatically.  He impressively set the scene by merging three passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, two proclaimed by the prophets Malachi and Isaiah, and the third taken from the book of Exodus (though for some reason Mark identified only Isaiah).  

Whatever about the birth of royal heirs or resounding military victories being good news for the Roman empire, through his reference to Scripture Mark was claiming that the advent of John was about to usher in a truly momentous era in world history.  This would be more than the restoration of Judah after the devastating deportation to Babylon (which was foremost in Isaiah’s mind), more indeed than the original Exodus that saw the foundation of the Hebrew people.  This would be the moment of God’s definitive saving intervention in the world, the inauguration of the Day of the Lord, a totally new era of salvation.

Mark did not explain his references to the prophets or Exodus, and obviously assumed that his readers were conversant with the Scriptures. 

Mark’s Use of Scripture

  1. The Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) were used by Mark to confirm and, as it were, foreshadow the events of the life and death of Jesus.

    A reading of the Hebrew Scriptures of themselves, without the insights only made possible in hindsight by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, gave no real indication of what was to happen.  The use of scriptural texts by Christian preachers and writers was quite selective.  By far the majority of prophecies were in no way literally or even figuratively fulfilled by the Jesus event.  Yet it must have been an exciting and fascinating experience for the first generations of Christians to re-read their Scriptures and find, in the light of what had in fact happened, hints and meanings that otherwise would have remained unseen and unsuspected. 

  2. So many of Jesus’ words and deeds echoed the scriptural milieu of Israel.  The readers’ familiarity with that literary and cultural background provided them with the key for a deeper understanding and interpretation of Mark’s (and presumably Jesus’) message.

With his carefully chosen selections from Malachi, Exodus and Isaiah, Mark was shaping the images that would appear again in the Gospel as his story unfolded.


The broader context of Malachi’s prophecy, assumed by Mark, is important:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,
and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple ...
Then I will draw near to you for judgment;
I will be swift to bear witness ... against those who oppress
the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan,
against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1, 5)
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes … (Malachi 4:5)
  1. Malachi viewed God’s coming as great and terrible – great for all who were oppressed, terrible for oppressors.  Jesus would firmly reiterate this theme.
  2. Malachi identified God’s precursor as Elijah.  Mark dressed John in the same striking garb as Elijah to make the connection obvious.  (A servant of King Ahaziah had identified Elijah thus: A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist (2 Kings 1:8).

Later in the narrative Jesus would explicitly affirm that John the Baptist was the awaited Elijah. (The tradition that Elijah would return to earth was based on a story where Elijah was carried alive into the sky on a chariot of fire:

As they [Elijah and Elisha] continued walking and talking,
a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them,
and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.  (2 Kings 2:11)

The second reference in Mark’s quotation echoed the Book of Exodus (as had Malachi): 

I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way
and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.  (Exodus 23:20)  

(In Greek, the same word can be translated as angel or messenger.  Where the English text of Exodus used angel, the text of Malachi had messenger.) 

The book of Exodus told the story of the enslaved and oppressed Israelites making their way out from Egypt, tracing that way across the unfamiliar and frightening wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, and eventually finding their way into the Promised Land.  On the way they were formed into an organized people of God.  The wilderness was the place of failure and progress, of training and of testing, the place where the Name of God was revealed to Moses, and through Moses to the people.  

The process begun with the Exodus moved towards its climax as John, the messenger ushered in the advent of Jesus.

Isaiah wrote:

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken…. (Isaiah 40:3-5)
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9)

Isaiah was speaking to the exiles in Babylon, prior to their repatriation to Judaea.  The herald of good news proclaimed that God would lead the chosen people back from Babylon, through the desert wilderness, to Jerusalem (Zion).

Mark modified the quotation from Isaiah: the wilderness became the site of the proclamation, not simply the path of return.  He then had John appear in the wilderness proclaiming his message, the good tidings, in preparation for Jesus who would bring to fulfillment the saving plan of God.  Contrary to the movement spoken of by Isaiah, people would flock outwards from the cities and from Jerusalem to the wilderness to John.  Isaiah’s sense of God particularly present in Jerusalem and its temple would be strongly challenged as the narrative developed.

Mark seemed to delight in this balance of opposites, in anticlimax.  After a wonderful evocation of promise of religious and social renewal, he proceeded to turn things upside-down.  He deliberately shattered expectations. 

God’s messenger appeared, not with fanfare or at the centres of power, but in the wilderness of Judaea, a wild and eccentric figure, strangely clothed and starkly ascetic.

Next >> Mark 1:4-8