A Voice in the Wilderness

John the Baptist

My wife asked me a very good question the other day that today I seek to answer through scripture. I love being questioned because it causes me to stop and think instead of just accepting. Scripture exists not just so we would believe, but also to prove the truth. This is why it is called the book of truth. My wife’s question revolves around John the Baptist as Elijah. How do we know that John the Baptist is Elijah returned? Why wasn’t He called Elijah instead of John? Where else in the scriptures does it prove who John the Baptist was other than Jesus telling His disciples that is who he was? Let’s start in the beginning.

In Isaiah 40, God speaks through the prophet revealing what it will look like when the Lord comes to inhabit the earth:

[quote]3 A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. 4 “Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; 5 Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”[/quote]

Many of Isaiah’s prophecies are about the coming of Christ and the new life we can have in Him. We see that God revealed through Isaiah that when the Lord is incarnated, there will be one announcing His arrival and “clearing the way.” This refers to preparing the people for His coming. In other words, God will send a “hype man” to let people know they should get excited and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Later, God better clarifies this prophecy by speaking through Malachi, who also was a prophet that foretold of the coming of the Christ. In Malachi 3, we read:

[quote]1 “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. 5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts. 6 “For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed. 7 “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD of hosts. “But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ [/quote]

There are a couple elements in this prophecy that reveal to us that Malachi is speaking of John and Jesus. The Lord whom we seek is clearly Jesus. He began His ministry by preaching in the temple and referencing Isaiah 61 and revealing that the prophecy that was foretold of His coming is being fulfilled by His presence on earth (Luke 4:14-21). In Malachi 4, God repeats and clarifies that this prophet crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way will have the spirit of Elijah:

[quote]5 “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. 6 “He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”[/quote]

John’s message was repentance. He called the wandering people of Israel to return to the Lord in time for His coming. The people themselves weren’t sure what His coming would look like, although their hope was for a political savior in the time of their affliction. They were still stuck on seeing things physically instead of spiritually but they came anyway. There were lines of people waiting to publically repent and turn back to the Lord. As the wait finally comes to an end and God sends His angels to speak to Zacharias, John’s father, we see the revelation of who John will become in Luke 1:

[quote]5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. 8 Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. 11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14 “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. 16 “And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. 17 “It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”[/quote]

So, why would the spirit and power of Elijah be named John? Let’s look at the meaning behind their names. Elijah means, “my God is Jehovah,” and John means, “Jehovah is a gracious giver.” Although in English names don’t necessarily mean a whole lot, names and their meanings were very important in those days. Some cultures today still preserve that importance of the meaning behinds people’s names. What we see here is that John was so named because of his purpose. Not only did it fit that Elizabeth and Zacharias were too old to have a baby (like Abraham and Sarah), but also that John was to proclaim the year of goodness of the Lord. His sole mission was to let others know of the coming of the Christ and redemption to the people. The “spirit and power of Elijah” refers to Elijah’s mission while he was on earth. Elijah was a prominent voice for the Lord in the times of the kings. He demonstrated the power and presence of the Lord and continually revealed to the kings of Israel God’s majesty. Eventually, he became famous and relied upon as a prophet of the Lord for counsel and direction by the kings. This is why John came in the power and spirit of Elijah, because he did the very same thing. It is not necessarily that John was Elijah reincarnated, rather that John would serve the same purpose as Elijah did on earth, but this time declaring a different kind of presence of God, Jesus His Son. Later in Luke 1, when John is born, we see God’s Spirit through Zachariah prophecy over him:

[quote]57 Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her. 59 And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. 60 But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. 63 And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. 64 And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God. 65 Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him. 67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, 69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of David His servant – 70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old – 71 Salvation FROM OUR ENEMIES, And FROM THE HAND OF ALL WHO HATE US; 72 To show mercy toward our fathers, And to remember His holy covenant, 73 The oath which He swore to Abraham our father, 74 To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days. 76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on BEFORE THE LORD TO PREPARE HIS WAYS; 77 To give to His people the knowledge of salvation By the forgiveness of their sins, 78 Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, 79 TO SHINE UPON THOSE WHO SIT IN DARKNESS AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH, To guide our feet into the way of peace.” 80 And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.[/quote]

God clearly set John apart and detailed who he was in regards to Old Testament prophecy and the coming Messiah. One oddity that we find in scripture is in John 1 (not written by John the Baptist, but John the disciple of Christ) where some priests and Levites (those who cared for the temple) question John on his identity:

[quote]19 This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them saying, “I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. 27 “It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ 31 “I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.” 32 John testified saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. 33 “I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ 34 “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.”[/quote]

As John Gill articulates in his exposition of John 1:20, the people questioning John the Baptist of who he was and John denying that he was Elijah refers to their thinking of Elijah’s reincarnation, not understanding that the spirit and power of Elijah would be evident in John. The question refers to Elijah himself instead of the mission, to which John clearly answers no, he was not Elijah reincarnated. See what happens when we think in the physical instead of the spiritual? John even specifies that he is the one crying in the wilderness, referring to the return of the spirit and power of Elijah. He wasn’t confused, the people were confused because they had the wrong idea about how Elijah would return. We become confused about what God says and does when we lose sight of the spiritual implications of things. This is Jesus’ point in Matthew 11 in regards to John:

[quote]10 “This is the one about whom it is written, ‘BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.’ 11 “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. 13 “For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 “And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. 15 “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.[/quote]

John the Baptist cleared the way for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Elijah announced and portrayed the existence of the Kingdom of God, but Jesus brought it and embodied it on Earth right after John rolled out the red carpet. We would be wise to listen to what he said and Jesus repeated, “repent for the Kingdom of God has come.”

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