“After me comes the one more powerful than I…”
– Mark 1:7a
I don’t know about you, but power and its significance are on my mind this morning…
Who is this voice crying out in the wilderness, this one who calls himself powerful, or mighty?
…even though he quickly adds that the One coming after him – Jesus Christ – will be even stronger… even mightier than him?
Who is this John the Baptist?
Well, in many ways, he seems to be Jesus’ opposite of sorts, doesn’t he?
We should assume, of course, that both Jesus and John knew well the principal of being “in the world but not of it”.
Nevertheless… while Jesus Christ was in the world eating and drinking – evidently to the point that his opponents thought they could get away with calling him a glutton and a drunkard! – John did no such thing, but lived an odd and austere hermit’s life.
And, as Jesus tells us, “John,” in fact, “came neither eating nor drinking,” and yet those opposing him still said: “He has a demon.”
And they said this about Jesus as well…
Precisely because of the message that they preached and lived.
Regardless of the differences between them, John the Baptist and Jesus Christ were not the kind of men who brought comfort to certain kinds of people – perhaps even if they wanted to bring comfort – but rather seemed to afflict certain kinds of people… even oppress them… not only with their words, but by their very presence.
On the face of it though, it’s perhaps easier for us to see how John the Baptist – being so different! – might have done this.
For instance, take something as simple as his clothes…
His robe – like the robe of the prophet Elijah before him – was most likely woven from camel’s hair. As such, it had a very course texture much like the garments of many of the most poor…
He also had a cheap leather belt, and, interestingly, no sandals are mentioned.
And what of his diet?
Well, Leviticus 11:22 tells us that the Israelites, being God’s special people, were not to eat of the flying insects except for four kinds – all varieties of locusts.
Being abundant in the spring, one could remove their legs and then dry or roast them, perhaps grinding them up, and seasoning them with salt.
The honey would have been the famous wild honey the region was known for…
John literally ate this stuff up… and evidently some pretty large crowds were also eager to pay attention to John…
The commentator R.C.H. Lenski writes some very interesting words about John the Baptist:
“The very appearance of John was… a stern sermon. It was a call to all those who made food and drink, house and raiment their chief concern in life to turn from such vanity and to provide far more essential things. John was a living illustration of how little man really needs here below – something we are prone to forget. In drawing people out into the wilderness after him, John made them share a bit of his own austere life. Men left their mansions, offices, shops, their common round of life and for a time at least gave their thoughts to higher things.”
John, truly, had a peculiar power to turn people to “higher things”.
He’s out in the wilderness – which is also a sign of the fallen world, under the curse of sin and enmeshed in sin – and he attracted people not by his “power ties” and “power suits,” but with a powerful message.
The first prophet Israel had seen in 400 years, he called the people to repent of their sins, and made the way straight for the One who takes us out of the wilderness of the fallen world… and the wilderness of our own spiritual emptiness and barrenness.
He is saying: this fallen world is not our home!
And what did Jesus say about John?:
Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.[i]
So John, according to Jesus too, is somehow great and mighty on earth… powerful.
And yet, again, as we heard this morning, John says, here on earth, that Jesus Christ is even mightier than him…[ii]
Hence the comment he makes about being unworthy to remove Jesus’ sandals…
Now “Removing a person’s sandals was a lowly task appropriate only for a slave…”[iii] Actually, this was a task that was even lower than a Hebrew slave’s job…. (France, 70).
We like to say today how Jesus Christ was a servant-leader – and to do so certainly makes some sense.
At the same time, what is John really saying here?
Well, a Master, as much as a servant that he may be, nevertheless has authority over a servant in part because he is, in some sense, mightier, stronger, and greater than the servant.
And this mightiness, this greatness, is connected with the matter of authority. And here the Holy Spirit has a very specific kind of authority is in mind.
It is not necessarily the kind of authority that holds sway in the world – as necessary and even as valid as that kind of authority might often be – but the kind of authority that completely defeats… overpowers… the world.
And here, we might think of the words from the Apostle John – not John the Baptist! – in the book of I John:
“….for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.”
This same Apostle John also quotes Jesus saying that He wants us to have peace: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).
Perhaps, a passage like Ephesians chapter 6 from the Apostle Paul can be of real assistance here:
10 ….be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
But what, you may wonder, is this world that is being overcome, being defeated, by spiritual power?[iv]
Again, it is the Apostle John who tells us that Jesus appeared specifically to “destroy the devil’s work.”
That is why He loved the world as He did, overcoming it.
So, what are some things we should take away from all of this?
Looking to that quote earlier from R.C.H. Lenski, he mentioned how John the Baptist aimed to usher us to higher things… The Apostle Paul also says “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things…”
What does this mean exactly?
It doesn’t mean “being so heavenly minded one is no earthly good.”
It means, first of all, that this world is not all there is.
This world is passing away.
And that means, more specifically, that the “powers of this dark world and… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” that Paul tells us about will ultimately be completely overpowered, even as now the victory is sure.
So, in the end, we don’t war against flesh and blood, but long for its renewal and cleansing – the new heavens and earth.
Remember that Jesus said to Nicodemus that spiritual things cannot be understood if we do not comprehend earthly things.
What does this mean?
Well, there are “orders of creation” that it is critical we understand.
The orders of the earthly world — that many in our day try to deny, overcome and overpower – can help us as signs that point us to the higher spiritual realities we have been talking about.
The boy blessed with a good father intuitively grasps the notion of the Heavenly Father, and is ready to perceive the spiritual realities that John the Baptist, Jesus, and others of the Apostles are gesturing us to.
The children who have parents that love one another, are loyal to each other…. Where the wife is prepared to submit to her husband and he willing to die for her… are ready to understand the unique and powerful love shared by Jesus Christ, and His Holy Bride, the church.
And the parents who are ready to receive the joy that each and every new human life brings are made ready to hear the great message of the baby boy in Bethlehem who routes the world….
The devil and his demons hate – absolutely hate – all of this.
And in our society especially, they are trying to get you there too.
Hate the Gospel. Hate mercy. Hate the blessing of fathers, marriage, and children… Hate even the very notion of male and female.
This, my brethren, is truly the Kingdom of the World in its full bloom!
In its full hatred of God and His creation.
When God says “up,” this hatred says “down”. When he says “live!,” this hatred says “die”. When he says “good,” the hatred says “evil”….
The book of Mark is fascinating in this way. In that book, on page after page, you will see Satan opposing Jesus at every turn. In fact, we see there all kinds of terrifying and grotesque manifestations – even physically! – of the demonic realm.
While this is not complete unfamiliar in our times and place – many know about the classic film The Exorcist, for example – in the Western world, Satan seems to have thought it wise to keep a lower profile…
As a former student of mine once put it “When considering the impact public demonic displays would have, it would be counter-productive to keeping our minds off of religion.”
No, the main thing that we should keep in mind about the devils work among us today, in our time and place, has to do with exactly the same kind of stunt he pulled right in the beginning of creation:
“Did God really say?…”
In other words, the power of the lie.
The injecting of doubt into the reliability, power, and authority of God’s word….
So, again, as we saw from the Ephesians 6, even as we know that Jesus Christ has in one sense has already defeated the demonic at the cross and certainly will mop things up in the Last Day, in the meantime, we get the sense from the Apostle Paul that there’s a fight for us to have as well…
And also, when Acts 10:38 notes “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him….”
That should really get our attention today.
Can we help our neighbors – at least some of them –come out from “under the power of the devil” and his lies?
And should we strive to be powerful in doing this?
We heard the Apostle Paul mention the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the blessed feet that bring good news of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, the very word of God…
He then, as we heard, also talked about the importance of prayer, which the demon-infested book of Mark covers in a good amount of depth as well….
And here, Mark 9 strikes me as a key chapter in this book…
It mentions the importance of both prayer and being salty.
Let’s look at both of those briefly now…
John the Baptist was evidently a prayerful man…
After all, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Prayer is a critical component of spiritual battle. We must realize that while we might not be chosen to be those who encounter demons that physically manifest themselves, Satan is nevertheless having a field day in our culture, as the power of the lie increasingly rules the hearts and minds of men.
What can we do?
We can cry out:
“Lord, increase our faith!
I trust in you that you forgive my sins! Forever save me!
Please preserve the faith of those I love!
And please give me the grace that I might also serve you more!”
In Mark 9, a man comes to Jesus and begs for Jesus’ help in removing a demon from his child….
He says: “I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
Jesus’ rebuke to His disciples is absolutely stinging:
“You unbelieving generation… how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
Jesus says “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
The man immediately replies, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
Jesus heals the boy Himself and later, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replies, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”[v]
Recognize two things here:
First, when Jesus rebukes His disciples for unbelieving, realize that He is not treating them this way because they are not really his followers but because they are. They trust in Him – have salvation in Him! – but there is much room to grow!
Second, note well the importance of prayer. Devote yourself to it. Remember Anna at the Temple, who we talked about in detail a couple weeks ago!
Aspire to be more like her, like John, and like Jesus!
My generation exclaimed, “Like Mike [Michael Jordan that is], I Wanna Be Like Mike…”
Let’s pray for a re-prioritization of our models here…
And what is the second key we find mentioned in Mark 9?
It also ends with these interesting words:
Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”[vi]
What does this mean?
Well, there was a well-known ancient saying in Jesus’ day that said “the world cannot survive without salt” (Tractate Sopherim XV.8).
Salt was used for many purposes in that world, including flavoring, preservation, fertilizer, and cleansing (Strauss 415).
In sum though, Jesus is encouraging his followers to not lose the characteristics that bring preservation, life, and real peace to the world.[vii]
How so? From the Word of God that comes from the outside and cleanses and purifies us within.
Sometimes this salt of the word of God will burn like fire, the law burning away the dross of our old Adam, and the Gospel bringing healing to us and those who we touch.
This is how we overcome… overpower, the world.
Brothers and sisters, we are saved by simple trust in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins to bring us to God. Who says “I forgive you” to us again and again…
At the same time though, things like prayer and saltiness are the means that faith in Christ uses to prepare us for real spiritual battle.
These two come about as God increases our faith, and hence, our sheer dependence on Him, our hope expressed in prayer….
In our world, we increasingly feel chaos.
I saw one person say this past week:
“If you’re a common sense person, you probably don’t feel you have a home in this world right now. If you’re a Christian, you know you were never meant to.” (Patricia Heaton).
I could identify with that.
In the ancient world, the ocean was also seen as chaotic, and was greatly feared…
Men who rode the sea knew that it, it’s terrifying depths, it’s great unpredictability, was a heavy, heavy thing… worthy of their utmost respect.
And in like fashion, a battle against the demonic might sound utterly pulse-pounding. Sometimes, I think, it is. In the Gospel of Mark we hear much about shrieking demons being cast out. I have a friend, one Pastor Harold Ristau, who could tell you something about that too…
And what of a biblical book like the book of Acts? It is often quite intense, exciting. The church pushing Satan out, winning territory as “the word of the Lord grows….” The Gospel spreading from Jerusalem, to Judea… to Samaria… to the Ends of the Earth!
Power – and authority!
The fiery flames of Pentecost come to mind here… Baptized with the Holy Spirit indeed!
There are no doubt moments for this, where the intense and chaotic powers of the world are confronted head-on with the intense power of God!
And yet, more often than not though, the battle is much more simple, humble… perhaps even seeming quite dull!
Amidst the chaos of the seas around you, God brings you home, burying you in the baptism of simple water, and raising you from the dead with the Lord Jesus Christ…
So… keeping this matter about power really simple:
Who are you listening to?
Who are you believing?
In whom, ultimately, are you putting your trust?
Making your God?
How can we be synched up with, connected up with, the odd power that John the Baptist had?
How, can we, like him, be willing to be the Messiah’s slaves, to “deflect all the attention from himself and direct it to Jesus” (Strauss, 67)?
How can we, like Paul, say “when I am weak then he is strong”?
How can we be a part of the non-violent revolution of hearts that features the power of mustard seeds and yeast working slowly through the dough?
To overcome worldliness, the world, Babylon, the [evil] Prince of this world?[viii]
Well, to be strong, to be spiritually powerful, to be prayerful and salty…. first, remember this:
“You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
You are baptized into Jesus Christ, God’s own Son.
And so the same is true about you as well…
Go in peace, and serve your King.
[i] Shortened the immediate above from this:
I started out today by pointing out that John the Baptist himself said that he was mighty.
In what way though really?
Truly, even by the world’s standards, he has a kind of power… having the kind of influence over men that he did… though it is no doubt a strange, unfamiliar, peculiar power…
Again, the commentator Lenski points out that while it is significant that John is literally in the wilderness, the prophet Isaiah, in his original prophecy, also used the literal wilderness, or the desert, as a sign for the fallen world, under the curse of sin and enmeshed in sin.
More specifically, it is identified with worldliness… the city of Babylon… a sign of all that is wrong in the world.
In Isaiah, the wilderness, or desert, is the sign of that which should cause repentance, which will in turn lead into the land of milk and honey… the bloom and abundance of the Messianic Kingdom!
That is why John is there… to lead the way to Jesus, who brings with Him “the abundant life”, or life “to the full”!
In other words, though Babylon be great and grand in the world’s terms, it is not our home but a place that should make us realize we are not home…
It is actually a wilderness where people are ultimately lost, full of utter godlessness, emptiness, and barrenness…
Going along with the connection between the wilderness and Babylon and the world, one commentator says it is significant that John is in the wilderness, because “the hearts of the people had become a desert region, and they needed to be rescued.” (Wicke, 14 ; see also Lenski, 27) – and many no doubt sensed that John, this first prophet in 400 years! – could be the one to do it!
As Jesus would put it in the book of Matthew, chapter 11:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet…
One commentator, talking specifically about the prophet Elijah, said the following: “The prophet’s clothing was rough and basic. He had no need of ‘power dressing’ to impress his audience. The message was sufficient” (p. 293).
I think that this is all pretty fascinating, to be sure. John’s kind of power… his power, evidently, to draw people into the wilderness, and, as Lenki says, cause their thoughts to move to “higher things…”. Jesus, in the book of Mathew, would hence go on to say….
11Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
[ii] Footnote: Clearly, John is expecting God’s Messiah to not be Yahweh himself, but another human being. Strauss says “It would be a truism for a human prophet to assert that Yahweh was ‘more powerful’ than himself.” (66)
[iii] “…The [Jewish holy book of the] Talmud says that the disciple of a rabbi[, that is a teacher,] must do for him everything that a slave would do, except removing his shoes (b. Ketub. 96a). John [therefore,] places himself below the level of the Messiah’s slave…” (Strauss, 65).
[iv] Doesn’t John 3:16, for example say that God sent His only Son to save the world precisely because He loved the world?
So does God love the world or does He want it defeated?
The world God wants defeated is the fallen world. When the Bible says that God loved the world by sending His Son Jesus Christ, it has in mind God’s mercy, His love, towards mankind, the crown of His creation which, by sin, through the world into chaos, destruction, and disintegration.
That is Babylon. Where we must struggle not only against our individual sins, but the sins of our communities as well. Where we must try to “go against the flow” of the world and its worldliness
In spite of the presence of sin in the world, the infection of sin in the world, God desired to save mankind and in fact, His whole creation.
And so Jesus Christ came.
As we know from the season, we just celebrated, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”
With tears He fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield,
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows, looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns, cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior’s steed.
His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib His trench, hay-stalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He His muster makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.
[v] 1,600 years ago, the church father Jerome even said, quoting Scripture passages like Mark 9:29, that “the more violent devils cannot be overcome except by prayer and fasting.” (ACCS, 118)
Lenski, commenting on Mark 9:29, says: “Matthew’s fuller answer states as the reason [for the failed exorcism] the unbelief of the disciples and adds a promise to faith….”
I also note that Lenski leaves out the fasting part in Matthew 17:21 though (like the NIV and ESV as well) It does seem to only be in the KJV, in that family of manuscripts… (And for more on that kind of thing, see here: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/justandsinner/the-critical-text-very-word-of-god-fallible-witness-of-man-both/)
[vi] What does this mean? In the first place, William Lane helps us very much with the part occurring right before this: “Everyone will be salted with fire”. I’ll quote in full:
“…every disciple is to be a sacrifice for God (cf. Rom. 12:1). In the OT the Temple sacrifices had to be accompanied by salt (Lev. 2:13; Ezek. 43:24; cf. Ex. 30:35). The salt-sacrifice metaphor is appropriate to a situation of suffering and trial in which the principle of sacrifice cultivated with respect to the individual members of the body is now severely tested. The disciples must be seasoned with salt, like the sacrifice. This will take place through fiery trials (cf. I Peter 1:7; 4:12), through which God will purge away everything contrary to his will…” (p. 349).
[vii] See, e.g. Strauss, 414-415.