As a boy growing up in the 90s, I grew up loving Disney’s Aladdin. And the song “Prince Ali,” where Aladdin marches into the palace as a prince led by a parade, is a perfect picture to imagine the role of John the Baptist. The song opens:
Make way for Prince Ali!
Say hey! It’s Prince Ali!
Hey! Clear the way in the old bazaar
Hey you! Let us through!
It’s a bright new star!
Oh come, be the first on your block to meet his eye!
Make way! Here he comes!
Ring bells! Bang the drums!
Oh! You’re gonna love this guy!
Just as the parade and song made way for Prince Ali’s entrance, so we see John the Baptist at the opening of Mark’s gospel preparing the way for the coming Messiah King.
It is shown in the opening verses of Mark 1 that John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the prophecies in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1, that told of a messenger who would prepare the way. Isaiah would have been more widely known, which is why scholars speculate that Isaiah is the only one credited with this. Regardless, what has been promised of old is now here in John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord.
In Mark 1:7-8 we read, “And he preached, saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”John the Baptist makes sure it is known that he is not the Messiah but rather one that is preparing the way for the Messiah King. This Messiah King is mightier than him and will do a greater work in giving the Spirit to His people.
A Baptism of Repentance
But as John the Baptist prepares the way of the Lord, he is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This word repentance is not simply an “I am sorry, please forgive me.” The word repentance means a turning about or turning away. But what is one turning away from? Repentance is a turning away from sin. It is a turning back to God.
The idea of repentance seems lost among many today though. I would argue that it is even lost among many who would profess they are Christians. For one, we often don’t realize the depths of our sin. We think we are pretty good people who just need a little help. Yet that is not how the Bible tells the story. Throughout the pages of the Bible, even very early in the story of Genesis, we see that sin continued to spread through the seed of the first woman, Eve. We see sin that crouched at the door and devoured Cain. We see the people of Noah’s day, who were wicked and faced God’s wrath through the flood. Then we see Abraham lying about Sarah being his sister instead of his wife. We see the corruption of Sodom and Gomorrah. We see the deception of Laban with Jacob. You see, the effects of sin are great and spread from generation to generation. As David says in Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” It’s not that we have simply dabbled in a little sin. We have known nothing but sin from our first breath following the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Left to ourselves, we stand opposed to God and all his ways. Sin has made us enemies of God.
When we fail to understand the depth of sin, we can never grasp the doctrine of repentance, for we see no need in true repentance when we have a shallow view of sin. Once we understand the depth of our sin—like we read in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God—we can begin to understand our need to repent.
Thomas H. McCall, in Against God and Nature, states, “Repentance is a vital aspect of the process of change that we call ‘conversion,’ and without the genuine and authentic change that comes with conversion there is no salvation.” Repentance is the changing of allegiances. It is turning from being under the rule of sin to bowing before the Lord our King in submission to his rule. Psalm 2:12 says, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” For us to come to true faith and repentance, we must turn our allegiance to King Jesus and away from sin. This is exactly the message of repentance that John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness in Mark 1 as he prepared the way for King Jesus.
Mark 1:4-5 reads, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judaea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” The phrase “a baptism of repentance” seems to communicate an outward sign of baptism for an inward heart change. The idea of baptism is being immersed into water and arising anew. While some argue that baptism can be the sprinkling of an individual, that is not what we see in Mark 1:4-5. The underlying word for baptism is βαπτισω, which means to immerse. The idea is that John was immersing people completely into the Jordan River for this baptism. It is also made clear here that the people were coming and confessing their sins. And all of this was to be a sign of a heart change.
John was preparing the way of the Lord, by calling people to turn from sin back to the Father. Consider this message of repentance, which Jesus goes on to echo in Mark 1:14-15: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” As we enter the season of Advent, may we consider our need to keep with repentance (Matthew 3:8), regularly repenting of sin as we become aware of sin in our lives.
Whether we are a Christian or a non-Christian, may we dwell on this truth: Jesus came to be born in a manger. He who knew no sin became sin for us. He went to the cross and took on God’s wrath against sin, that all who would believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus died and was buried and then rose again three days later, defeating death. To believe in this Jesus is to confess our sins and repent from sin by coming to Jesus. May we come and kiss the hand of King Jesus in allegiance to Him this Christmas.