“As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…”
The quotation here is from Isaiah 40:3. This is one of the only passages that is quoted in every gospel account near the beginning. There is, however, another passage cited here: Malachi 3:1. This passage, and its context, will be helpful to us when studying the ministry of John the Baptist as well as deciphering Jesus's comments concerning the coming judgement.
While Mark calls this “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” it is interesting to note that the account of Jesus's birth, persecution as a child by Herod, flight to Egypt, and events as a twelve-year-old are left out of Mark's account.
“The beginning,” according to him, really begins with this quotation of Isaiah followed by the ministry of John the Baptist.
The importance of this quotation will be seen in the coming commentary, but just know for now that this text is in the midst of a discourse on the “New” or “Second Exodus.”
This frames the entirety of Mark's account of the life of Christ in a New Exodus setting. That is, Mark believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of all the promises in the Old Testament prophets concerning resurrection, a return to the land, reconciliation of the nations, and the Davidic kingdom.
Each of the other authors of the gospel accounts, likewise, place the ministry of Jesus in a similar context, but the extent of that will not be seen in this commentary.
“BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY…”
The first quotation comes from Malachi 3:1-4. The full passage reads,
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. 2 “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. 3 “He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness. 4 “Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
This passage reveals that John the Baptist was not just to announce the earthly ministry of Jesus, but he was an eschatological figure who's arrival marks the beginning of the last days and the arrival of the end of the age.
His ministry would prepare the people for the arrival of Jesus who would purify the priesthood so that the offering to God would be pleasing.
The following text indicates that God would come near to the people in order to judge them for their many sorcerers, adulterers, liars, oppressors of the poor, oppressors of the fatherless and widow, those who turn aside the foreigner, and those that do not fear God (Malachi 3:5). This list bears a close resemblance to one in Revelation 21:8 which is also a picture of God coming in judgement.
Malachi 4 also contains a message of judgement and is applied to the ministry of John the Baptist by Jesus in Mark 9:13 (cf. Malachi 4:5). In that passage, Malachi warns of the day of God in which the arrogant and evil doers would be burned like chaff and would be left neither root nor branch. This language closely resembles John's in Matthew's account of his ministry:
The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy spirit and fire. 12 “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:10-12).
Thus, Mark's use of Malachi 3 invokes a larger context of judgement and makes John into an eschatological figure and not simply one who would announce Jesus's earthly ministry.
This connection between John and the last days will play a part in our understanding of Jesus's message concerning judgement later in the gospel account.
There is another text that is possibly behind this passage:
Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. (Exodus 23:20).
This echo further confirms and supports what we know from Malachi and Isaiah, as seen below. John is the angelos that would prepare the people for their entrance into the kingdom of God.
“THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT.”
The next passage introduced is the one that Mark names: Isaiah 40:3. The context of Isaiah 40 is fascinating and reveals just how powerful the first century saints viewed the gospel in its ability to restore Israel.
The chapter begins by Isaiah pronouncing that peace would finally come to Jerusalem.
Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the LORD'S hand Double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:2)
This second verse of Isaiah 40 is connected both directly and indirectly to multiple Old and New Testament themes.
Her warfare has ended
This theme began at the beginning of the book in Isaiah's vision for the last days:
The word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 Now it will come about that In the last days The mountain of the house of the LORD Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it. 3 And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways And that we may walk in His paths.” For the law will go forth from Zion And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war. (Isaiah 2:1-4)
Jesus, in His ministry, spoke about bringing peace to His disciples. This would be a type of peace that the world cannot offer, and it is one that they would not understand, Paul says:
Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful. (John 14:27)
And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)
That her iniquity has been removed
This short statement is incredibly important for understanding many Old Testament and New Testament texts. For example, Daniel saw a day when iniquity would be removed as well: at the end of the seventy weeks.
Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. (Daniel 9:24)
This passage would be fulfilled when they would see the “abomination of desolation” (Daniel 9:27). The abomination of desolation is also the time of the resurrection according to Daniel 12:2, 11. This is significant because Jesus said that the abomination of desolation would happen within the lifetime of His disciples:
Therefore when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. (Matthew 24:15-16)
Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24:34)
So, the time of the taking away of the iniquity is the time when Israel would be restored. But the time of the taking away of the iniquity would be when the resurrection would take place. And this would be at the abomination of desolation which Jesus said would happen within that generation.
This means that, just in referencing Isaiah 40, Mark believed that the restoration of Israel, the taking away of the iniquity, the resurrection, and the abomination of desolation would take place within that generation and that John was the catalyst to kickstart these last day events.
Another key New Testament passage that depends upon Isaiah 40:3 is found in Romans.
In one of the most difficult sections of Scripture, according to many, the apostle Paul declares:
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB.” 27 “THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM, WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.”
This idea, of taking away of the sins of Israel, goes back to Isaiah 27:9. It is in a passage about judgement, resurrection, vindication, and banqueting with God.
This all takes place “on this mountain” which is yet another reference to Isaiah 2, as mentioned above.
Isaiah 25-27 is also the source of Paul's doctrine of the resurrection:
He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 27:8)
But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. (1 Corinthians 15:54)
Hopefully, you are starting to see the rich history behind this simple reference and the amazing implications of Mark invoking this remarkable context at the beginning of his gospel account.
This incredible observation that many have recognized is even more fascinating when one considers that every gospel writer also quotes this passage towards the beginning of their gospel account (Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23).
That she has received of the LORD'S hand Double for all her sins
This text is alluded to by John in Revelation 18: 6.
Pay her back even as she has paid, and give back to her double according to her deeds; in the cup which she has mixed, mix twice as much for her.
This connects not only this passage but also texts such as Matthew 23 and 1 Thessalonians 2 together as well:
“So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 “Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. 33 “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell? 34 “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, 35 so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 “Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (Matthew 23:31-36)
For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, 15 who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, 16 hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the utmost. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)
The proximity of Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4 should come to our minds when we consider this connection found between Matthew 23 and 1 Thessalonians 2.
The first century saints did not view a future with multiple comings of the Lord separated by thousands of years but a soon-to-come event that would take place within that generation at the fall of the second temple.
There is much more that could be discussed in Isaiah 40, such as “the glory of the Lord will be revealed” and “all flesh will see it.” But since this is a commentary on Mark, hopefully this small taste of the theological background to the opening passages in Mark will at least make you aware of the saint's expectations.