Think of John the Baptist as Jack the Dipper.
We have grown so accustomed to the figure of John the Baptist, it may help to translate his name afresh, for in the eyes of his contemporaries he and his activity were anything but customary. At a time when prophets were thought to have been a thing of the distant past, along comes this strange man calling his fellow Israelites to repentance and inviting them to symbolize this renewed commitment by getting dunked in the River Jordan. This was not business as usual, as if a religious functionary were involving people in a familiar ritual. This is a prophet doing once again what prophets did in the past, operating with an attention-getting symbolic action—like Jeremiah smashing a jug to illustrate the fate of Israel (Jer 19).
Some scholars understand John's immersion ritual as a unique appropriation of a ritual used as a rite of passage for converts to the community of Israel. For the proselyte the meaning would have been this: as a sign of your decision to join this community which passed through the waters of the Red Sea, now you pass through these waters. John's new meaning: my fellow Israelites, as a sign of your repentance and rededication to our covenant life with God, come forward and signify your fresh start by submitting to the rite we use for Gentile converts.
As Jew addressing fellow Jews, the Baptist is calling them to renewal of their Mosaic faith, living the Torah, and also preparing them for someone he calls The Stronger One, who is going to offer an even more radical renewal through immersion in nothing less than the Spirit of God. In a few deft strokes, Mark provides just the details we need to put into focus this curious man and his actions.
Our author sets the stage with a multiple reference to the Hebrew prophets:
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths'’” (Mark 1:2-3).
What Mark has given us is really a mix—first of Mal 3:1 and then Is 40:3. The combination is a bold stroke of interpretation. The “messenger” in the context of Malachi (whose very name means “my messenger”) is later identified in Verse 23 as Elijah come again. And the drift of this last chapter of the last Hebrew prophet is that Elijah will come to call God's people to repentance. What people need to convert from is set forth clearly:
I will be swift to bear witness
against … those who defraud the hired man of his wages,
against those who defraud widows and orphans;
those who turn aside the stranger" (Mal 3:5).
The bold interpretation is that John the Baptizer is here to be understood as Malachi's messenger of God. Not only is the Baptizer preaching the conversion portrayed in Malachi 3, he is even dressed in the manner of Elijah as described in 2 Kings 1:8, that is, “with a leather girdle about his loins.”
The second part of the quotation is also a fresh application of the ancient Scriptures. The reference to the voice crying in the desert, “Prepare the way,” comes from the part of Isaiah we hear this Sunday in the First Reading. When Isaiah first used the phrase, “the way of the Lord” was a way of speaking of the return to Judah from the Babylonian Exile that the Lord Yhwh was about to make happen in the late sixth century BCE. Once the line from Malachi is applied to the Baptist, Isaiah's “voice of one crying out in the desert” applies to John as well. As a consequence, “The Lord,” a name for God in Isaiah's context, becomes in Mark's usage a reference to Jesus confessed as Lord, with post-Easter perspective.
These initial verses of Mark provide a good example of how the early Christians read their Hebrew Bible. Their experience of the God of Israel present and active in Jesus of Nazareth allows them to use the words of the prophets in ways that go far beyond Isaiah's and Malachi's wildest dreams. Malachi's long-awaited “day” of judgment begins to unfold with the coming of Jesus. And if Isaiah could speak of the homecoming from the Exile in Babylon as a second Exodus, what begins to unfold in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a fuller, deeper Exodus led by the same Lord of hosts.
The report of the Baptist's preaching may seem overly brief, but heard against that same Hebrew Bible it says quite enough: “I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The promise of a drenching in the divine Spirit evokes a number of prophetic oracles (for example, Is 44:3; Joel 3:1), but the richest background is probably Ezek 36:25-27:
In this masterful introduction to his Gospel, Mark is setting us up for good news and bad news. The bad news is that there is a profound need for God's chosen (then, the Israelites; now, all of us who claim the heritage of Israel) to repent, and that someone is going to get killed in the process—first John, then Jesus, then many other disciples. The good news is that the advent of Jesus really does offer the purifying and energizing gift of the Spirit, working a continuing conversion and spiritual Exodus to the extent we respond to this coming of Jesus in a decisive faith—fearing God, being just to the hired person, meeting the needs of the widow and orphan, and turning the hearts of fathers to their children and children to their fathers (Mal 3).
I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes.