He appeared one day, coming out of the surrounding desert.
He was clothed in camel hair. He fed on locusts and wild honey. He prophesied the coming of a kingdom from heaven. He dunked people in water for the forgiveness of sins. He told of the coming of another who would baptize them with the divine Spirit.
So Mark begins his gospel—so different than the themes and images that stand out in the openings of the other gospels. Matthew has angelic dreams, a brilliant star, and Magi. Luke has a chorus of angels, an old priest, and a young pure virgin. John has a lofty reflection on truth, light, creation, and reason.
Mark has none of that.
Instead, we are left with John the Baptist, who, by any secular standards, was a crazy person: a homeless man who drifted in from the wilderness, dunking people in water and talking about the end times.
A strange beginning indeed. But, then, isn’t this how the gospel appears today?
A bewildering and bedraggled wild man who behaves strangely and says even stranger things may very well be a fitting analogy for how the gospel message is viewed by the world. John was certainly a confusing and unsettling figure then: the crowds thought him to the Messiah; the Pharisees thought he was the second coming of Elijah.
John the Baptist was viewed as essential to the start of the story of Jesus by all four gospel writers. Indeed, other than Jesus Himself, John the Baptist is the most conspicuous aspect of the story that is common to the openings of all four gospels. Matthew and Luke have the infancy narratives. John has a highly philosophical and theological retelling of Genesis 1. Mark skips ahead of all that to just before the start of Jesus’ own ministry. Only all four have John the Baptist.
Why is he necessary?
But perhaps that’s the wrong question. A better way to think about John the Baptist is in terms of what was most fitting. And it certainly was most fitting that there should be a messenger sent ahead of the heavenly king to announce his arrival on earth. In fact, the Greek word for messenger—which is how Mark 1:2 describes him—is angelos, from which we get angel.
Of course, there were many angels that also announced the coming of Christ: the Angel Gabriel to Mary, the angel that appeared to Joseph, the angel of the Lord and the angelic chorus before the shepherds. But all these announced the birth of the Lord. But who announced Him as He began His ministry? That was John the Baptist.
There’s also an Incarnational dimension to John the Baptist’s role as an angelic messenger for Christ. Christ, being fully divine, was ‘from heaven,’ so it was fitting that angels might announce His advent on earth. But Christ was fully human as well, so it was also fitting that someone ‘from earth’ would also witness to his coming.
John the Baptist looks forward to Christ even as he looks backwards to the Old Testament. In a sense, John the Baptist embodies some Old Testament prophets all in one. His sanctification in the womb recalls the prophet Jeremiah. His garb, diet, and desert dwelling recalled Elijah, who himself was a second Moses. (For more the connections between Moses, Elijah, and Jeremiah, see this article.)
The connection with Elijah is of particular importance, as Malachi 3:23 had prophesied that Elijah would return before the ‘great and terrible day of the Lord.’ John the Baptist also fulfilled the famous prophecy of Isaiah 40:3 about a voice in the wilderness crying out, making straight the way for the Lord.
In fulfilling these prophecies, John the Baptist binds the Old to the New. In a sense, he himself is also the last of the Old Testament prophets—the last, so to speak, to come before Christ. That we read about John the Baptist in the New rather than the Old Testament testifies to the way God works: He is the one who makes all things new, who sums up and restores all things in Christ.
This is essential to the story of Christ. He is the new Adam who freed us from the sin of the first. He is the new temple and tabernacle. His mother is the new ark of the covenant. All these things of the Old are made New in Christ. And yes, that even includes the quintessentially grumpy and disheveled figure of the Old Testament prophet.
In the final analysis, John the Baptist makes a lot of sense as a final forerunner of Christ. Consider again this camel hair-wearing, locust-eating desert dweller and what an impression he must have made on the public even then when he wandered into Judea. The shocking message of the Incarnation indeed was most fittingly reflecting in the shocking figure of its messenger.