John the Baptist never became a Christian or follower of Jesus; indeed, there are signs of a cult about John even in the 50’s AD, a sign that a number of John’s followers never became followers of Jesus. John’s importance lies in the fact that, for all four Gospels, the reality of God’s intervention into Jewish history began with John; it culminated in Jesus. This divine intervention, longed for by Jews for centuries (especially after the return from Babylon), is expressed by Mark’s combined quotation from Malachi and Isaiah: God now will send ’My messenger’, whom Mark understands to be John, before ’you’, who is Jesus. Further, this ’messenger’ has the task to prepare the Lord’s way, to make straight his paths. The ’Lord’ can certainly mean God, as He comes now to visit His people, but, given that the title ’Lord’ has been applied to Jesus for over 30 years in Christian worship, Mark can equally call Jesus ’Lord’. With this citation from Malachi and Isaiah Mark intends to define John. First he is to preach repentance, a return to God, culminating in a public act of washing so that one exits from the water to live a new moral life. This preaching is very reminiscent of a major plea from prophets running throughout the Jewish Scriptures: return to Me, O My people! In this John is very much the prophet, now to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Second, John, ’messenger before you’, goes ahead of Jesus. He not only calls for change of morals, but also announces the imminent presence of one whose servant John is not worthy to be. Another way of distinguishing John from Jesus is that John will cleanse with water; Jesus will cleanse with the Holy Spirit. Few descriptions more aptly separate the effects of Jesus from those of John: both want repentance, but only one gives the Spirit of holiness. It is at this juncture that we are reminded that it is God who gives His Spirit; yet, the Gospel of Mark trumpets the belief that it is Jesus who will do this – a reminder to us of Mark’s first verse: ’Jesus...Son of God’. The value of John lies not only in that he makes sense of what God had said through Malachi and Isaiah. His value lies also in the fact that he is a most trustworthy witness to Jesus. John was one of the most revered figures of his time, who gave his life because he was honest and truthful before kings. His word, his testimony is invaluable. His very food and clothing give witness that he was interested only in preaching repentance and the coming of One greater than he. John fittingly leads us to Jesus. The testimony of John on behalf of Jesus would go far in silencing objections to Christians from the Jewish quarter, and would focus on the man who will now, in obedience, take center stage in God’s plan for us and call us to repentance, to our own obedience to our Father. John Kilgallen, S.J.
Mark September 10, no. 5