The Culture Cure? A Radical Ministry (Chapter 1 Verses 1-3)
These words originally spoken by Isaiah (Isaiah 40.3-5), referred in the first place to Israel’s return route from exile. Their disobedience to God had caused them to lose the promised land, exiled in Babylon. The way back was by no means smooth and straight. There is always a double edge to prophesy though, it had further reaching consequences than Isaiah understood in his day. Now some of its fuller implications were to be realized. God was coming to visit his people again, he wasn’t far away and his grace was about to be revealed in a new and powerful way. The culture in which John ministered? An Israelite society which had declined terribly, it was in a deplorable state. Politically? Rome ruled, and ruthlessly too. Socially? The age was modern, its habits and comforts were accompanied by vice and misery. Slavery was practised on a massive scale. Home life was degenerating, one parent families the order of the day. Nightly shows in the amphi-theatres provided the bloodiest entertainment you could lust for. Morally? Immoral and vicious. No conviction of sin (Ephesians 4.19). Prostitution was widespread amongst males and females, and abortion wholesale. Weariness had seized many, they were a people who needed a Saviour. The religious ethos? Annas and Caiaphas held office, and there will rule in the house of God. Ruthless ecclesiastics who cared nothing about God and revival of true religion was the last thing on their mind.
In to this environment, John came preaching, with a God-given message (Luke 3.2). So John needed to know he had been sent by God, his ministry would enrage the politicians, disgust the social workers, cut him off from the moralists, and ostracize him from the churchmen. He would need to remind himself often in the presence of God, “Lord, you sent me”. But now the stage is set for his ministry. John was a real radical in Israel, he needed to be, but a man who left his mark on their society. Many came out into the desert to hear him (3.5), he was a preacher, that’s what he did, nothing else (Luke 3.3). There aren’t many of them around these days? John lifted his voice and declared clearly and distinctly with great courage what God gave him to say. No alterations, no omissions, or additions. Nothing of his own eloquence, not what John thought best for Israel. But the good news which is folly to those on the road to destruction (1Corinthians 1.17-25; 1Corinthians 2.2). How is God revealed, communicated to people? Through preaching (Titus 1.3). How else are they to hear (Romans 10.14)? The Lord Jesus himself stated his own primary function was what? You’ve got it – preaching (Mark 1.14, 38). O whether you be a Christian or not, get with good preaching, there’s nothing better for your soul, how else can you live, I mean flourish, prosper, reach the mark God has set for you (Deuteronomy 8.3; Matthew 4.4)?
Changing Grace (Chapter 1 Verses 4-5)
The message John preached was threefold, that the people should be baptized, signifying repentance, in order that their sins be forgiven. The baptism he proclaimed was connected to repentance, that is to say, that it was repentance which made a person eligible for John’s baptism. John would not just baptize anyone who requested it. We actually see him refuse to baptize certain impenitent people. There had to be a change of mind, and a turning with the entirety of one’s being from sin and rebellion against God. There was a deep spiritual significance to what John (and the Bible as a whole) meant by repentance. It was a change of heart, turning from sin (Acts 2.38), and its consequent guilt to God (Acts 3.19), for forgiveness and cleansing (Jeremiah 31.34). We tend to think of repentance as being a negative thing, but on the contrary, it is very positive, it brings spiritual refreshment from the Lord. And as both John and Mark tell us, John emphasized its necessity for Divine forgiveness. Do you begin to see what Mark means about good news? That there is mercy with God, forgiveness in abundance? The very conception of the Gospel plan tells us that. But O, that there is forgiveness (Romans 4.7; Micah 7.19; Isaiah 43.25), there is a way for real guilt to be dealt with, and a way back to God from the dark path of sin (Isaiah 30.21). O the matchless grace and favour of God!
The word used for forgiveness here is one of the sweetest in the whole Bible. It means the sending away of sin (Psalm 103.12), so far away that on the day of judgment, not even God can find it. As though the writing on the page had been blotted out (Isaiah 43.25). Can there be sweeter, more wonderful news for a sinner? All of them, the mountains of them, the huge ones, the open and secret ones, the gross ones, all of them (1John 1.7). What blessed relief when Jesus knows all about them, comes into the heart and says, “they are all gone, forgiven, all gently washed away”? Many people came to John confessing their sins v5. It’s good for the soul to confess sin. But it is important to realize what is meant is that the people confessed their sin to God, not to a man, not to John the Baptist. The Bible is clear on this, God gives the authority to forgive sin to only one, the man Christ Jesus (1Timothy 2.5; Mark 2 1-12). There is no one, no matter what ecclesiastical authority they carry, or dress worn, who has the authority to say, “your sins are forgiven”. Only God himself, in Christ, no other (2Corinthians 5.19). Go and tell Him, now!
(©️James R Hamilton, May 2018)