Fellowship at Cross Creek
The Story of Sin…
Part XII: Elijah’s Voice Prepares a Path for both Sinner and Savior to Meet…
By Joseph M. Cross
So if the son of a late first-century B.C.E. Jewish priest named Zacharias—that is, John the Baptist–was prophetically destined to become Isaiah 40’s Crying Voice, Malachi 3’s Messenger and Malachi 4’s figurative Elijah, then just how did John specifically clear the way for the LORD’s promised appearing and deliverance?
Remember John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, and his prophecy at John’s birth?
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways…
(And how will Zacharias’ son prepare the Lord’s ways or the Lord’s way? By…)
“…giving his people knowledge (or understanding) of salvation by the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 1:76-77).
And how did John the Baptist give God’s people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins? Well, lets’ look at how the Four Gospels (the stories of Yah-Save’s life…Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) described John’s prophetic ministry.
First, Mark’s account…
Mark 1:4 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
Note the three key elements which characterized John’s giving God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins… 1) baptism (immersion or an outward symbolic cleansing of sins), 2) repentance (a turning away or from a thoughtless lifestyle of sin, or Spiritual error or an approach to living that doesn’t take God into mind… to one that does… in faith and trust, a Spiritual u-turn so to speak… a turn from walking away from God to walking towards God), as well as, or proof of all of this 3) publicly confessing or acknowledging exactly or specifically what how the repentant party had been living away from God, or in this case–early first century Judea, God’s Law.
So how is John’s prophetic ministry giving the people knowledge or understanding of (God’s) salvation or deliverance by the forgiveness of Spiritual errors or wrongs? By being Isaiah 40’s Crying Voice…
Is 40:1 Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
In other words, God is coming; clean up your lives; prepare your lives and your hearts for his coming…his deliverance…his forgiveness for past sins…or lawful indiscretions…start thinking about God…again, why? Because his glory is about to be revealed and all the people are about to witness it.
And the people’s response to John’s Crying Voice? Baptism or immersion, repentance (turning back to God) and confession (or admission of legal wrongs and Spiritual crimes).
6 John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey. 7 And he was preaching, and saying, “After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. 8 I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with (something much greater) the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; 11 and a voice came out of the heavens: “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.”
(Note in both verses 8 and 10, John is connecting Yah-Saves…Jesus, or God the Father’s Son, with God’s Holy Spirit. Thus this verse lays the groundwork for what will be the absolute musts in man’s victory over imperfection…both God the Son and God the Spirit…the Son’s error or sin-atoning sacrifice and the Spirit’s truth and power within the believer’s life. In other words, I am telling you now…both are required. The Son and the Spirit, or perhaps stated in a way that involves all three persons of the godhead, as mentioned here at the Son’s baptism…1) the Son’s death atones for all the repentant’s many wrongs…millions, if not billions of wrongs or imperfections; 2) the Father then forgives or releases the repentant of his or her wrongs…because those wrongs have now been legally, Spiritually and in every other way imaginable, atoned or paid for, and 3) the Spirit now begins to teach, expose, correct, reveal, intercede on behalf of (Rom. 8) and empower the believer, or the one who sins or imperfections have been legally and Spiritually atoned for, to developmentally and practically, and over time, be saved or delivered from their ongoing struggle with sin or imperfection. Thus I am making the case that in this one scene, rewound via the pages of divinely-recorded scripture, as a flash of divine lightning momentarily reveals what has always been there, but was previously cloaked in darkness, the whole plan of the Triune Godhead’s deliverance for his fallen creature’s momentarily flashes before our eyes. What is missed in the moment, now looking back through time and divine Scripture can be clearly seen, and if you ask me, it is amazing…mind-boggling!
Second, Matthew’s account…
Matt. 3:4 Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; 6 and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.
(Note in addition to Mark’s mention of baptism, or the outward washing of sins, as well as, the confession of sins…or Spiritual errors, Matthew adds an addendum of sorts, exposing, thankfully, that pseudo-religious piety or the false imitation of repenting from or the confessing of one’s sins. or even the symbol of water baptism, was in no way a satisfactory substitute for the genuine admission of and the turning from one’s Spiritual imperfections in order to truly Spiritually prepare oneself for the Lord’s arrival. In other words, God will NOT be faked out–thank you, God!)
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
(John pulls no punches here. We now know that from the very onset of this story that both the prophesied Elijah and Messiah will have an unanticipated enemy to overcome in bringing to the people knowledge of Gods salvation by the forgiveness of sins. In addition to the more obvious enemy of the Rome Empire, there is exists a much more subtler and deadlier enemy–one that John compares to a brood of deadly vipers–that is, Judah’s current corrupt religious leadership.)
8 Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. 10 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.
(Very emphatically John nails Judah’s apostate religious leaders to the wall–they may have come out to hear John in order to give their token, pseudo-religious approval to John’s prophetic ministry, but according to John their actions were: 1) inconsistent with God’s call for repentance in the first place and 2) their attempt to cloak or hide their inward Spiritual corruption within their religious robes of pseudo-righteousness was nothing more than hypocrisy and in no way was fooling John or God. In other words, 1) whatever they were doing was wrong and 2) their attempt to hide it was just as wrong. They were fakes!…A deadly brood of vipers! It doesn’t get much worse that this. John has thrown down the Spiritual gauntlet. The war is on. Now can you see why John was called to prepare the way for the Lord? As it still requires even today, 2,000 years later, within the heart and mind of a man, John’s preparing of God’s people to truly welcome their Lord’s arrival would require some major blasting of sinful, stubborn rock, including pride and superficial religiosity. Thus the need for public confession, repentance and baptism.)
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 (immerse) 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.”
(*Notice as with Mark, Matthew seems to emphasize the same themes of baptism, repentance, confession of sins and the Holy Spirit. But now Matthew adds a debate between John and Jesus as to who should baptize whom? Finally, John [the lesser…Elijah] relents and does what [the greater…the Messiah] Jesus tells him to do.)
13 Then Jesus *arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. 14 But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” 15 But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he *permitted Him. 16 After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
It’s just a weird thought, and in fact, Luke’s account may even seem to invalidate what I am about to suggest, but there may be another reason as: 1) to why all the Gospel writers may have wanted to clearly delineate Elijah’s subservient role with respect to God’s Anointed, as well as, 2) to why Jesus [the Messiah] wanted John [Elijah] to validate his ministry or Messiah-ship. The inter-testamental, non-canonical writing of the Apocrypha, written more than a century before Jesus and John’s appearing, seem to indicate that because [according to the OT prophesies] not only would God’s people suffer, but her Messiah as well (Is. 53; Ps. 22), their non-divine Messiah’s ministry often took a back seat to Elijah’s more public ministry—especially, according to Jewish tradition, Elijah’s sounding of his trumpet in order to recall the scattered 12 tribes of Israel back to their native homeland, thus inaugurating the Messianic age (Eschatology—Formation of Eschatological System; Jewish Encyclopedia citing Ecclus. [Sirach] 48:10; I Mace. 14:41).
Now, I am not sure I really buy this temporary role-reversal of sorts, but IF this reversed Elijah-Messiah viewpoint was indeed out there and being offered up or taught by some of the rabbis during John and Jesus’ day, might it not also make even more sense for Jesus to have John baptize him, thus having Jesus’ figurative Elijah validate his Messiah-ship before the nation, as well as, for John when he: 1) tells of one greater than himself, whose sandal he is not worthy to unite, as well as, 2) his initial refusal to baptize Jesus in order for Jesus to baptize John, that he is in essence saying…my story…Elijah’s story… is NOT my story, rather it is unquestionably the Messiah’s story…and a story that will contain perhaps the greatest and most profound plot twists in all of human history.
And in fact, the Gospel-writer John (not John the Baptist, but Jesus’ disciple) records that when Jesus began to baptize more people than John the Baptist was baptizing, John the Baptist quite emphatically answers his own questioning disciples that clearly Yah-Saves (Jesus) MUST increase, while he, Malachi’s figurative Elijah, MUST decrease (John 3:30).
Third, Luke’s account…
Besides the already common material to Mark and Matthew, Luke includes John’s four-fold answer to what genuine repentance from sin to this generation looks like…
Luke 3:10 And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?” 11 And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” 12 And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” 14 Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”
(In other words, share and play fair. Don’t cheat, steal or rob; rather be generous. That seems both simple and non-instinctual enough…at least enough to begin to be Spiritually prepared to recognize God’s arrival and salvation…)
15 Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ…
(It would seem to me that this verse might somewhat invalidate the previous suggestion that for some Elijah was somewhat usurping the Messiah’s importance in ushering in the Messianic age. Luke then also includes Mark and Matthew’s account of both John’s attestation to his subservient role to one much greater than himself, but that this One has the authority to both judge and reward.)
Summary… So how does John’s ministry validate or fulfill his father’s prophecy about him, i.e. his functioning as Malachi’s figurative Elijah or Isaiah’s Voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord? Well, according to the Synoptic Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, it appears to be a two-way street with both parties meeting in the middle. First, John preaches a baptism or immersion of water that seems to symbolize outwardly what is taking place inwardly for the person being baptized, and that is, an inward-outward change of heart, beginning with the confession of one’s sins or Spiritual errors and continuing on via a life of not only playing fair or being just with others, but even sharing with others in genuine need. That’s one side of the road or bridge; the other side, as opposed to what one might have expected—that Jesus (the greater party) should be baptizing John (the lesser party)–seems to be Jesus’ demand that John, in order to fulfill all righteousness, baptize Jesus instead. Ultimately, what we do seem to get out of this seemingly reversed baptism is John’s witnessing of the Spirit of God descending as a dove upon the now-baptized Jesus, along with the Father’s words, This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.
Thus, it would seem that, much as, Moses served as the OT mediator between the rescued bride, Israel, and her divine, rescuing groom, Yahweh God, John’s divinely-ordained road-building responsibilities through the barren wilderness of man’s sins involved a building a road in two directions: 1) towards fallen Judah–via the message of confession of and repentance from sin on the people’s behalf towards God, as well as, 2) a witnessing both of the Spirit and voice of God validating that Yah-Saves (Jesus) was indeed the Son of God …Isaiah’s glory of the Lord being revealed.
Next Time…The Gospel of John’s attestation to John the Baptist’s prophetic role in preparing the people for the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins–The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!