This is why John the Baptist is so important. John was what we would call a charismatic character. He was a prophet in the tradition of the great Jewish prophet Elijah, and he lived in the desert like a “holy man” or monastic, wearing rough clothing made of camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist. He ate the food of the desert, locusts and wild honey (v. 6). But John was not important because of his unusual appearance or charismatic personality. He was important for one thing only. He prepared the way for Jesus Christ.
How did he do it? He did it by preaching, and the essential elements of his preaching are what Mark mentions: (1) the need of repentance of sin and God’s forgiveness; (2) the coming of Jesus as a divine Person, one far greater than John himself; and (3) the work of Jesus in providing salvation for those who would repent of their sin and believe on him. In verse 4 Mark tells us that John came “baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
The call for baptism is itself interesting, because it was a fairly novel thing. The striking thing here is that John was asking Jews to be baptized and there was no precedent for that. Jews were never baptized. It was unheard of. In fact, so novel was the demand that Jews be baptized that John was specifically named “the baptizer.” No one had ever demanded this of the so-called “people of God” before. But it was extremely important, of course. For John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and was therefore a powerful way of saying that all people are sinners and that they must repent of sin if they are to benefit from the Savior who, at that time, was just coming.
This is something that is terribly neglected today. We are not surprised that the world does not talk about sin. The world does the opposite. The world talks about its good works and tells itself that all is well. The surprising thing is that often the church is not talking about sin either. Instead, scores of preachers and lay people are concerned for what are called “felt needs,” and as a result they are spending their time telling people that those felt needs will be met simply by “coming to Jesus” and not telling them that they are in rebellion against God, that they are in danger of judgment, and that their only hope of escape is by faith in Jesus Christ.
Or if it is not speaking to felt needs, the evangelical church is so often merely trying to entertain people, believing that the way to build God’s kingdom is by helping people to have a good time in church and to feel good afterward. Remember that John the Baptist was not an entertainer. He was so far from being one that Jesus contrasted himself with John, saying, “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you and you did not dance, we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’” (Matt. 11:16-19).
I hope you won’t forget that what Christmas is about is really serious. Christmas is a time to enjoy yourself; I am not denying that. By all means have a good time. Celebrate with your family and friends. Laugh and tell stories. But don’t forget that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, whose very name means “Jehovah saves” or “Salvation is of the Lord.” Thus, if you are going to prepare for Christmas at all, you have to begin by repenting of your sin and turning to the One who alone is able to save you from it. One commentator has said, “The divine and proper preparation for the gospel of Jesus Christ is preaching about sin.”1
1 R. Kent Hughes, Mark, vol. I, Jesus, Servant and Savior (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1989), p. 23.