I love how Mark starts off his letter. Short, sweet and straight to the point. He doesn’t leave much room to wonder what he’s writing about.
“The beginning of the Good News of Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God” JNT
And then he jumps right in by quoting Isaiah and introducing us to one of the most interesting characters in the Scriptures, John the Baptizer.
John was an interesting man. Born miraculously to a priest, Zachariah and his elderly wife Elizabeth (see Luke 1), we know God had big plans for him from the beginning. But Mark introduces him as the messenger that was to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. The voice calling out “In the dessert prepare the way for Adonai!” He is a man who didn’t fit into the Jerusalem lifestyle. He lived in the wilderness, wore a Elijah costume (camel’s hair clothes and a leather belt, and ate locust and wild honey). And he went around preaching about this coming Kingdom of God and calling people to be baptized.
The idea of baptism, of immersion in water, was not something new to his listeners. All of them we familiar with the idea of mikveh and practiced it regularly. Mikveh was a ritual bath used for purification and cleansing. This ritual cleansing ws part of everyday life for his audience. Mikeveh was done to restore a person to a state of ceremonial cleanliness after becoming unclean. It was done after being healed from a disease, after childbirth, and before entering the temple. But this wasn’t the immersion that John was preaching.
This baptism also wasn’t a symbol of conversion to a new religion. It wasn’t about his audience converting to Judaism or Christianity.
No, John’s baptism was a baptism or repentance. The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah, and it carries a much richer understanding than the english word repentance. For us repentance means saying we’re sorry for something. The word teshuvah includes that idea of feeling regret or sorrow, but it also includes an element of turning or returning. Of not only feeling bad, but of changing of changing our ways, or changing the direction our life is going. Teshuvah is an active process.
And so as John wandered around in the wilderness, preaching about this coming Kingdom of Heaven, he was calling Israel to come to a point of tshevuah. He was calling them to actively turn from the direction they were going. He was calling them to admit their sin, to become sorry for not being obedient to God, but also to return to Him and His ways. And the baptism was the symbol of their change of heart.
John’s baptism was about recognizing that our lives are often out of line with God’s purposes. That we are headed in a direction that is leading away from Him. And that it isn’t enough to recognize that and feel sorry for it, but we must actively turn from our sin, and return to Him.