THE HERALD OF THE KING
And the whole country of Judea went out to him, and so did all the people of Jerusalem, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, while they confessed their sins. John was clad in a garment of camel’s hair, and he had a leather girdle round his waist, and it was his custom to eat locusts and wild honey. The burden of his proclamation was, “The one who is stronger than I is coming after me. I am not fit to stoop down and to loosen the strap of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
It is clear that the ministry of John was mightily effective, for they flocked out to listen to him and to submit to his baptism. Why was it that John made an impact such as this upon his nation?
(i) He was a man who lived his message. Not only his words, but also his whole life was a protest. Three things about him marked the reality of his protest against contemporary life.
(a) There was the place in which he stayed–the wilderness. Between the centre of Judaea and the Dead Sea lies one of the most terrible deserts in the world. It is a limestone desert; it looks warped and twisted; it shimmers in the haze of the heat; the rock is hot and blistering and sounds hollow to the feet as if there was some vast furnace underneath; it moves out to the Dead Sea and then descends in dreadful and unscalable precipices down to the shore. In the Old Testament it is sometimes called Yeshiymown (HSN3452), which means The Devastation. John was no city-dweller. He was a man from the desert and from its solitudes and its desolations. He was a man who had given himself a chance to hear the voice of God.
(b) There were the clothes he wore a garment woven of camel’s hair and a leather belt about his waist. So did Elijah (2Kgs.1:8). To look at the man was to be reminded, not of the fashionable orators of the day, but of the ancient prophets who lived close to the great simplicities and avoided the soft and effeminate luxuries which kill the soul.
(c) There was the food he ate–locusts and wild honey. It so happens that both words are capable of two interpretations. The locusts may be the animals for the law allowed them to be eaten (Lev.11:22-23); but they may also be a kind of bean or nut, the carob, which was the food of the poorest of the poor. The honey may be the honey the wild bees make; or it may be a kind of sweet sap that distills from the bark of certain trees. it does not matter what the words precisely mean. In any event John’s diet was of the simplest.
So John emerged. People had to listen to a man like that. It was said of Carlyle that “he preached the gospel of silence in twenty volumes.” Many a man comes with a message which he himself denies. Many a man with a comfortable bank account preaches about not laying up treasures upon earth. Many a man extols the blessings of poverty from a comfortable home. But in the case of John, the man was the message, and because of that people listened.
(ii) His message was effective because he told people what in their heart of hearts they knew and brought them what in the depths of their souls they were waiting for.
(a) The Jews had a saying that “if Israel would only keep the law of God perfectly for one day the Kingdom of God would come.” When John summoned men to repentance he was confronting them with a decision that they knew in their heart of hearts they ought to make. Long ago Plato said that education did not consist in telling people new things; it consisted in extracting from their memories what they already knew. No message is so effective as that which speaks to a man’s own conscience, and that message becomes well-nigh irresistible when it is spoken by a man who obviously has the right to speak.
(b) The people of Israel were well aware that for three hundred years the voice of prophecy had been silent. They were waiting for some authentic word from God. And in John they heard it. In every walk of life the expert is recognizable. A famous violinist tells us that no sooner had Toscanini mounted the rostrum than the orchestra felt his authority flowing over them. We recognize at once a doctor who has real skill. We recognize at once a speaker who knows his subject. John had come from God and to hear him was to know it.
(iii) His message was effective because he was completely humble. His own verdict on himself was that he was not fit for the duty of a slave. Sandals were composed simply of leather soles fastened to the foot by straps passing through the toes. The roads were unsurfaced. In dry weather they were dust heaps; in wet weather rivers of mud. To remove the sandals was the work and office of a slave. John asked nothing for himself but everything for the Christ whom he proclaimed. The man’s obvious self-forgottenness, his patent yieldedness, his complete self-effacement, his utter lostness in his message compelled people to listen.
(iv) His message was effective because he pointed to something and someone beyond himself. He told men that his baptism drenched them in water, but one was coming who would drench them in the Holy Spirit; and while water could cleanse a man’s body, the Holy Spirit could cleanse his life and self and heart. Dr. G. J. Jeffrey had a favourite illustration. When he was making a telephone call through the operator and there was some delay, the operator would often say, “I’m trying to connect you.” Then, when the connection had been effected, the operator faded out and left him in direct contact with the person to whom he wished to speak.
John’s one aim was not to occupy the centre of the stage himself, but to try to connect men with the one who was greater and stronger than he; and men listened to him because he pointed, not to himself, but to the one whom all men need.
Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary