My family and I recently had the opportunity to read the Bible together with another family who joined us for a meal. On this particular evening we chose Mark 1:1-13. In this section we read about the unique ministry of John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ. Typically, after reading the Bible, we all take an opportunity to share what we observed in the text. We start from the youngest to the oldest so that everyone has an opportunity to share something.
Now this text in particular is rather well known. Most Christians familiar with the Gospel story know about John the Baptist. They know about his unique call. They know about his strange garb and diet, which I’ve yet to see any Christian try to reproduce it. But for all our familiarity with the text, it was a comment from our guest that really struck me. When they heard the text they were not echoing the typical comments such as “This is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies,” or “John was bold and fearless.” Instead, they were drawn to the great difference between John and Jesus. It was insightful!
Now John and Jesus were both filled by the same Spirit. Both men were called by God to speak God’s words to God’s people. Both men shared a message of repentance. Both men called sinners to cling to God for mercy, and depart from their sinful lifestyles which was symbolized in their baptism. But one major difference is in John the Baptist’s recognition that he is wholly unworthy in comparison with the infinite and eternal holiness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our guest noticed this. We all missed it.
Their observation was birthed from these words of John, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (Mark 1:7 ESV) John’s unworthiness was sad and burdensome to our friend.
Now if the message of the Gospel was indeed to end there, well then, I’d have to say it is the greatest tragedy this world has ever known. Why? Because you have the very best that mankind could hope for in John the Baptist, and it still failed to measure up to God’s call for holiness. If a prophet of God can’t measure up what hope do we have!
But here in turn is the beauty of the Gospel. This is not where the story ends. In fact, it is properly the beginning of the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because it begins with a proper assessment of ourselves. And what is that? That the very best of us is still unworthy. Now we hate this idea. It is indeed part of the offense of the Gospel. Nevertheless, popularity and truth are not identical twins.
Contrary to popular conceptions, our spiritual unworthiness is not a badge of shame to cripple us, but a foil to emphasize the love of Christ. John the Baptist is the first prophet in over 400 years and even he cannot perform the most menial task fit for a slave in ancient times. How much worse off are we! Yet our propensity to bubble over with lust, rage, doubt, fear, anxiety, selfishness and every other putrid sore which clings to our souls like muck fossilized to the bottom of a scorched pan does not hinder Christ’s movement towards us. Here we find the beauty of the Gospel. The Gospel is not man’s move to God, but God’s move to man. This is what makes Christianity precious and unique.
The Christian faith is beautiful not only because it is true, but even more basically, that God does not recoil from us because we are sinful wretches. Instead, as the incarnation so clearly teaches us, Christ instead moves towards us. He doesn’t flee from our sinfulness, but puts it on Himself willingly like a coat. John the Baptist was unworthy. But His unworthiness only qualified Him to be cared for by Christ. He is the great physician isn’t He? This is something we need to get clearly stuck in our brains. Namely, that Christ came to die for sinners. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17 ESV)
How do we know this? We see this most clearly in the text. The very next thing we read about after John’s declaration of the otherworldly holiness of the Christ to come, is that this immaculate and holy King comes to be baptized by John. Baptism was a sign that one needed to be washed. Jesus was sinless. He needs no baptism, for He has nothing to be cleansed of. Yet He did so to identify with His people and to demonstrate that He would eventually take on their deaths in His death on the cross.
In short, by His baptism, Jesus magnified His willingness not only to meet sinners where they are, not only to identify with them, but to draw near to them and even plant Himself in the same muck they sat in for no other reason than the fact that He loves them. This is the beauty of Christianity. This is what you will never find in our godless, secular society. What is it? Grace. Mercy. Forgiveness. Peace, Unmerited favor. Unearned acceptance which covers a multitude of sins. Our secular world will devour you because it is all law with no grace. Christ’s mercy will encompass you from head to toe, not to devour you but to deliver you, and restore you as a son or daughter of the Most High God.