Connections 12.10.2017: What Would John the Baptist Say?

Mark 1:1-8

The other morning I got out of bed before my wife did. When she came into the den a few minutes later, she found me eating my oatmeal and watching the CBS Morning News. The first thing she said was, “Good morning!” The second thing she said was, “Has there been another one yet today?”

I knew what she meant: had there been another revelation about sexual harassment by a male politician or celebrity?

I answered, “Not yet.”

But there was one later in the day.

I don’t understand such predatory behavior. Evidently some men in powerful positions think they can leverage their power to coerce or force women into participating in sex or into accepting inappropriate words or touching.

Such an attitude and such actions indicate how these men regard themselves, how they regard other people, and how they regard themselves and others in relation to each other. Put too simply, such men think that it’s all about them and that other people exist to be used for their purposes.

I wonder what John the Baptist would say about such men?

Mark tells us that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4) and that people “were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (v. 5b). So he called on people to confess and to repent. But Mark doesn’t tell us what John told the people to repent of.

Luke does. He says that when “the crowds asked [John the Baptist], ‘What then should we do?’” he told them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’” When tax collectors asked the same question, he answered, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And he told soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (3:10-14).

So according to Luke, John told his listeners that to repent was to stop doing wrong to folks and to start doing right by them. It’s especially interesting that he told people not to misuse their power and gratify themselves by abusing others.

These days we get varying statements from the harassers. Most of them offer an apology of sorts. John the Baptist would call them to repent. I hope they will. I hope they will turn to the Lord and to professionals who can help them recognize and accept who they are and what they’ve done. I hope they will turn away from the attitudes and perspectives that led them to treat women in demeaning and dehumanizing ways.

Even if we have never harassed someone sexually or in some other way, current events and this Sunday’s Scripture passage confront us with the opportunity and responsibility to examine our hearts and minds. What are our attitudes toward other people? Do we regard them as full partners in the human enterprise or as objects to be used and manipulated? Do we need to repent? Do we need to change the ways we think about and feel toward others?

We don’t have to do so on our own. Mark, Matthew, and Luke all report that John said that he baptized with water but the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit that Jesus gives us will help us grow in love so that we will see and treat others in the right way.

Discussion

1. The opening words in Mark’s Gospel are “the beginning”. What other biblical book does this remind you of? Do you think Mark intentionally mimics that book’s opening? Why might he do this? What might be his point?
2. What do you think caused people to go to John to be baptized?
3. John said that he baptized with water but that the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Why is this an important difference?
4. What is the difference between the baptism John administered and the baptism that Christians experience?
5. In what way is the preaching of repentance part of “the good news of Jesus Christ” (v. 1)?

Reference Shelf

The “wilderness” or desert was
 significant in the history of Israel 
as a place of testing. Moses led 
the people of Israel in the wilder
ness for forty years before they crossed into the promised land. If the wilderness was a place of disobedience and testing, however, it was also the place where God did wonders and mighty acts for the people of Israel: providing manna, water, and the bronze serpent that delivered the people from death. The wilderness had therefore been romanticized by the first century, and the people looked to it as the place where they could await God’s final act of deliverance. By beginning in the wilderness and moving to Jerusalem, the gospel story recapitulates the history of Israel, showing in yet another way that it is a fulfillment as well as a promise of hope.

The baptism of John did not have the same meaning as Christian baptism (see Acts 19:1-7)—no baptismal practice prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus could have the significance of dying to an old way of life and being raised to a new life (cf. Rom 6:3-4). Nevertheless, the Essenes at Qumran, perhaps not far from where John was baptizing, practiced repeated self-administered ritual washings, and it is possible that John was influenced by their practices. Like the Essenes, he called fellow Jews to repent and prepare for the coming eschatological events. According to Josephus and the Gospel descriptions of John’s baptism, its distinguishing feature was that it was coupled with repentance. The call to repentance was also coupled with John’s warning of eschatological urgency: the time of judgment of the wicked and deliverance of the righteous was at hand. For those who repented of their sins, the washing of baptism brought forgiveness. Injunctions from the Manual of Discipline illustrate how repentance was essential for the effectiveness of ritual purification: one who maintains the stubbornness of his heart “will not become clean by the acts of atonement, nor shall he be purified by the cleansing waters, nor shall he be made holy by the seas or rivers, nor shall he be purified by all the water of the ablutions. Defiled, defiled shall he be all the days he spurns the decrees of God” (1QS 3.4-6). The Greek word for “repentance” signals a profound conversion: a transformation of mind, or a change in the way one appropriates reality (metanoia).

R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 45-46.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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