Mark 1:4-8

The Baptist Comes on Stage

4 John came baptising in the desert,
and proclaiming a baptism of conversion
for the removal of sins.
5 The whole of Judea came out to him, and the people of Jerusalem.  
They were baptised by him in the river Jordan,
publicly acknowledging their sins.
6 John wore clothing of camel hair
with a leather belt around his waist;
and ate locusts and wild honey.
7 HHe proclaimed, “The one who is stronger than I is coming after me.  
I am not worthy to bend down and untie the thongs of his sandals.
8 I have baptised you with water.  
He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”

Isaiah called people to prepare the way for the Lord. Mark had John call people to prepare the way for the one whom readers would see to be Jesus.

Consistent with his sense of anticlimax, and perhaps even in some sense subversively, Mark had people stream outward from Jerusalem and from the cities of Judah into the wilderness, leaving behind the places of power and privilege for the encounter with God.

John undoubtedly made a deep impact on people.

John proclaimed a baptism of conversion/repentance. 

What is Conversion?

The English word repentance carries primarily a connotation of moral reform. The preferable translation, "conversion", does not exclude moral reform, but its the immediate sense more a changed way of seeing life, a questioning of generally accepted assumptions, of culturally conditioned attitudes and values, and accepted ways of relating. It implies a radical change of perspective, an in-depth perception of reality. 


Mark gave no details of the attitudinal change John called for. His interest lay not in his message but in his setting the scene for Jesus.

John saw the outcome of the changed perspective to be the removal of sins. What this would entail would become more obvious in the ministry of Jesus.

John’s verbal message was supplemented by a symbolic act of baptism. To baptize means to plunge into or immerse in water. Washing was a common ritual action in Judaism. Later in the Gospel Mark would allude to the practice of the Pharisees to wash their arms after being in the market place. The washing was not to ensure hygiene, but to eliminate religious “uncleanness” through ritual.

Not very far away from where John was baptizing, down by the Dead Sea, was a community of Jews called Essenes, an ascetic monastic community, who also had developed the practice of repeated ritual baptisms. 

John’s baptism involved people immersing themselves in the waters of the Jordan river. The gesture seemed in this case to have had little to do with the pursuit of ritual “cleanness” and more to do with genuine moral reform. It was a dramatic gesture and public witness to people’s openness to change.

In his preaching, John referred to one who would follow him and identified him with a striking title: the one who is stronger. It would become clear later that not only would Jesus be more powerful than John, but more powerful indeed than the forces of evil soon to align against him. Of him, John said that he would baptise with the Holy Spirit (God’s power at work in the world). The strength of Jesus would be revealed not in his power to coerce physically or psychologically but in his very weakness, his readiness to be and to act simply on the basis of his own inner truth and integrity.

Next >> Mark 1:9