Mark 1:4 Commentary: John the Baptizer, the Prophesied Wilderness Prophet

Mark Commentary

Mark 1:4 Text & Translation

4 ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης [ὁ] βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν.1

John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a repentance-baptism for forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:4, AT)

The Wilderness Prophet

As we mentioned in our previous commentary on Mark 1:2-3, the word wilderness (ἔρημος | erēmos) appears four times in the  prologue (Mk 1:3, 4, 12, 13).

For Israel, the wilderness was the place of divine encounter, deliverance, and testing.2

Moses first encountered God at the burning bush after traveling through the wilderness.

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up (Ex 3:1-2, NIV).3

After the exodus, the Israelites traveled through the wilderness.4

22 Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert [erēmos cf. LXX] of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert [erēmos] without finding water. (Ex 15:22, NIV).5

Through the prophets, God had said He would restore His people in the wilderness.

“Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. (Hos 2:14-15, NIV cf. Jer 2:2-3).6

Given this Old Testament background, in the first century, many Jews expected the Messiah to come like a new Moses – from the wilderness.7 Many Jewish groups would leave society and gather in the wilderness to await the new Exodus.8

For Isaiah 40ff. foretells of a a new exodus from the wilderness9 (cf. Is 41:18-19, 43:19-21)10

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. (Is 43:19, NIV).11

Well, what do you know? John appears as the voice in the wilderness of Is 40:3,12 suggesting “hope and a new beginning”.13

As it’s been said, he doesn’t come out of the blue, but out of the Divine Blueprint.

John’s Baptism

To baptize (βαπτίζω | baptizō) means to “plunge, dip, wash…”14 – like a fabric literally immersed in dye or a person metaphorically immersed in debt.15

John is literally called “the one who is baptizing” (a participle, not a title).16 However, the title Baptist (βαπτιστής |baptistēs) does appear later in Mark (see Mk 6:25, 8:28).17

Like many other religions, Jews would undergo ceremonial washings at various times.18

Jews in the Qumran (Dead Sea Scroll) community would have repeatable, ritual washings19 daily.20 These washings were self-administered. 21 (Some think John may have been associated with them at one point,22 but apparently there’s little evidence of that). 23

Also, Gentiles who wanted to become Jews would be baptized (as proselytes).24 However, we are not sure if these proselyte baptisms took place in the 1st century.25

These Jewish converts would immerse themselves (once-for-all) while likely supervised by a religious leader.26

In contrast to these practices, John administered this once-for-all baptism to those who were already Jews.27 John’s baptism was something new.28

Covenantal Consecration

Yet it may allude to something old.

Before the LORD appeared on Mount Sinai, proclaimed the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), and made a covenant with His people (cf. Ex 24:7-8):

3 Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (Ex 19:3-6, NIV)29 (cf. 1 Pet 2:9-10)

10 And the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people (Ex 19:10-11, NIV).30

Here, the people were to wash themselves and be consecrated in preparation for the coming of the LORD. Thus, some believe John’s baptism may recall the old Sinai covenant.31

Perhaps John’s baptism was a similar preparatory washing in preparation for the coming of the Lord (Jesus Christ) — who would (through His blood) bring about a the foretold new covenant. (Mk 14:24; cf. Jer 31:31f.; Mk ; Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25;2 Cor 3:6; Heb 8:6, 8, 9:15, 12:24).

Moreover, John the Baptist doesn’t just baptize, he proclaims a certain kind of baptism.

The word proclaim (κηρύσσω | kēryssō) has “an official, authoritative sense”.32 For example, heralds would proclaim  the forthcoming arrival of a king.33

It appears John the Baptist has divine authority to proclaim a divine opportunity.34

As we will see in Mk 1:7-8, John’s baptism will be prepare people for the greater baptism of the Holy Spirit by Jesus.


John proclaims a repentance-baptism,35 not baptism for repentance.36

That is, the baptism did not bring about or result in repentance. It was a baptism “characterized by repentance” (an attributive genitive).37

If an unrepentant person is baptized, they will come up out of the water an unrepentant person who is wet.

Repentance (μετάνοια | metanoia) is more than mental change, but a deliberate turning from sin and turning to God,38 entailing a “total commitment to serving God”.39 It’s a U-Turn.40

Baptism was preceded by commitment (cf. Josephus Ant. 18.116-18).41 It did not magically make someone commit.

Washing was previously connected to repentance (cf. Jas 4:8. As we read in Isaiah:

Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. (Is 1:16, NIV; English, 31)

Jews would ask forgiveness and change their behavior.42 To ask forgiveness for something one does not strive to repent from would be ludicrous.

A changed heart is evidenced by changed lifestyle.43

Jews often thought that if they were born Jewish and did not turn from the Law, that they would be saved.44

Here John is calling Jews to repent!45 Repentance, not ancestry, is the prerequisite.46


Repentance would lead to forgiveness of sins– by God.47

John the Baptist was not forgiving sins, nor did the rite of baptism itself result in the forgiveness of sins.

Forgive (ἀφίημι | aphiēmi) literally means to “let go”, 48 and metaphorically means to “cancel, remit”.49 Thus, forgiveness  of sin is often portrayed as as canceling a debt.50

For instance, the Lord’s prayer reads:

12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Mt 6:12, NIV).

Sin (ἁμαρτία | hamartia) literally means to “miss the mark”; metaphorically it refers to disobeying God’s will.51

Previously, forgiveness for sin entailed animal sacrifices and priests in the Temple — previously in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25f.) — (cf. Lev 4:20f, Lev 16f). Thus, it is striking that John is proclaiming a way of forgiveness or remission of sins apart from sacrifices in the Temple.52

John’s baptism prepared them for “their reception of forgiveness”, which would “be supplied by Jesus’ future work”.53

And this future work, that of the new covenant in His (sacrificial) blood (Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25), was foretold by the prophets. For example, in Jeremiah, the LORD says:

33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer 31:33-34, NIV; cf. Is 53:3-6; Zec 13:1; Is 33:24;54 Ac 10:43, 13:39).


John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness as the prophesied messenger of the LORD who would prepare His way (cf. Mk 1:2-3) — a way for a new exodus, a new divine encounter, a new deliverance via the LORD the King.

This preparation for the way of the Lord Jesus entails the proclamation of a preparatory baptism for those who had turned away from sin and turned to God (i.e., repentance) for the purpose of the forgiveness of sins (by God). This forgiveness will ultimately be made possible through the work of Christ on the cross.

For more commentary on Mark, please visit the Book Study Overview page. For the sources cited, please see the bibliography.


  1. Barbara Aland et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, Fifth Revised Edition (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2014), Mk 1:4.
  2. Strauss, 63
  3. Strauss, 63
  4. English, 31
  5. Edwards, 29)
  6. Edwards, 29; France, 57; Guelich, 18)
  7. Keener, 129; English, 31
  8. Keener, 129; France, 56; Strauss, 63. Essenes in the Qumran community separated from the ungodly in society and waited for the LORD (France, 56).
  9. Keener, 129; Bock, 406; Kernaghan, 31; cf. Lane, 50; Guelich, 18
  10. France, 57
  11. France, 57
  12. Keener, 129; Cole, 950; English, 29; Witherington, 71; Schnabel, 39; Guelich, 11; Stein, 45; Strauss, 63
  13. Schnabel, 40 cf. France, 56
  14. BDAG, 164 cf. NIDNTTE, 460
  15. Schnabel, 40
  16. cf. Bock, 406
  17. Schnabel, 40 cf. France, 65; Guelich, 17
  18. Keener, 129 cf. Edwards, 29
  19. Witherington, 72; Brooks, 40; Schnabel, 40; France, 66; Stein, 44; Strauss, 64
  20. Edwards, 29
  21. France, 68; Guelich, 17
  22. Witherington, 72; Kernaghan, 32
  23. Edwards, 30 cf. Stein, 43
  24. Cole, 950; Keener, 129; English, 31; Garland, 45; Brooks, 40; Edwards, 30; France, 66; Guelich, 17; Stein, 44; Strauss, 64
  25. Witherington, 72
  26. Keener, 129; Witherington, 72; Brooks, 40; Edwards, 30 cf. Stein, 44
  27. Cole, 950; Witherington, 72; Edwards, 30; Guelich, 17; Strauss, 64
  28. Brooks, 40; France, 66 cf. Edwards, 30; Guelich, 17
  29. Edwards, 30
  30. Edwards, 30
  31. Edwards, 30
  32. UBS, 11 cf. English, 31; Schnabel, 41
  33. English, 31
  34. Edwards, 31
  35. Guelich, 16 cf. Lk 3:3; Ac 13:24, 19:4; UBS, 11; attributive genitive: Wallace, 80
  36. Stein, 45
  37. Wallace, 80; UBS, 11
  38. UBS,11-12; cf. Keener, 129; Kernaghan, 34; Lane, 49
  39. English, 31 cf. Cole T, 106; Brooks, 41; Cole, 950; Edwards, 31; Schnabel, 41; France, 66; Guelich, 18; Strauss, 64
  40. See the graphic in the slideshow from:
  41. Edwards, 31; Schnabel, 41; France, 67; Guelich, 19; Stein, 46; Strauss, 65
  42. Keener, 129
  43. Cole T, 106
  44. Keener, 129; cf. France, 66
  45. Keener, 129; English, 31
  46. France, 66
  47. Cole, 950; repentance-baptism “for the purpose of…” Guelich, 16; Strauss, 64
  48. EDNT, 181; NIDNTTE, 444
  49. NIDNTTE, 444; cf. BDAG, 155; EDNT, 181
  50. Bock, 406
  51. UBS, 12
  52. Witherington, 72 cf. Kernaghan, 32
  53. Bock, 406 cf. Guelich, 20
  54. Guelich, 19
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