The First Baptist S.E. Anderson
Chapter 2—Clearly Prophesied
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet . . ."
John the Baptist, among New Testament characters, is second only to Christ as to prominence in Old Testament prophecy. John was prefigured by Elijah, prophesied by Isaiah and promised by Malachi.
Jesus said about John, "And if ye will receive it, this is Elias [Elijah], which was for to come" (Matthew 11:14). The Holy Spirit said about John, "And he shall go before him [Christ] in the spirit and power of Elias" (Luke 1:17).
John was not actually Elijah, as he admitted to the committee of priests and Levites from Jerusalem (John 1:21). But the spirit and power of Elijah was so evident in John’s life that Christ said of him, "Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist" (Matthew 17:12,13).
Elijah prefigured John the Baptist in several ways.
Elijah was "an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins" (2 Kings 1:8). John the Baptist was a Nazirite and his clothing was of camel’s hair, "and a leathern girdle about his loins" (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6).
Elijah had disciples, "sons of the prophets" (2 Kings 2:3-15), even as John had disciples (Luke 11:1; John 1:35).
Elijah preached to wicked King Ahab (1 Kings 17:1) even as the Baptist witnessed to wicked Herod (Mark 6:20).
Both Elijah and John were fed in the wilderness in the area of the Jordan River (1 Kings 17:3-6; Matthew 3:4, 5).
Elijah was recognized as an unusual man of God (1 Kings 17:24) even as John the Baptist of whom his foes testified, "all hold John as a prophet" (Matthew 21:26).
Elijah was an outstanding evangelist of the Old Testament. His clear challenge, "How long halt ye between two opinions?" (1 Kings 18:21), has been used effectively by hundreds of evangelists since his time. Likewise John the Baptist called for a life-changing conversion in his evangelistic preaching: "Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2).
Elijah defeated 450 prophets of Baal. "And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God" (1 Kings 18:39). The Baptist’s success was quite as spectacular, for vast crowds came to see and hear him, "And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins" (Matthew 3:6).
Elijah had enough courage to rebuke wicked King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel (1 Kings 21:19, 23), even as John fearlessly told Herod that it was not lawful for him to have "his brother Philip’s wife" (Matthew 14:3, 4).
Elijah had his moment of depression and discouragement, under a juniper tree (1 Kings 19:1-4). John the Baptist, in a cruel prison, seemed to wonder about the Messianic program of Christ (Matthew 11:3). F. B. Meyer, in his John the Baptist (p. 112) wrote, "The Bible does not scruple to tell us of the failures of its noblest children: Abram, Elijah, Thomas." (Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids.)
John the Baptist was clearly prophesied by Isaiah, 40:3-5. This prophecy is quoted by each of the four Gospels, and all but Mark name Isaiah as the source. These three witnesses, including John 12:37-44, should establish the unity of authorship of the book of Isaiah. (Some scholars argue that a second "Isaiah" wrote chapters 40 to 66, and still others suggest three "Isaiahs.")
"The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness" (Is. 40:3). This begins the new note of comfort, as in verse one: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God." When John the Baptist began to preach, Israel had "received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins" (Is. 40:2), and for that reason many of John’s hearers were ready for the consolation he brought.
Looking closely at this prophecy, and its fulfillment, it should be noticed that John was a voice; he was not a mere echo. He was not a book-review preacher with only a hearsay acquaintance with God; he spoke with authority because he knew God and His Word intimately. His preaching was not mere oratory; it was a vital message from the Lord. He did not depend on earthly wisdom which may or may not have been good; he had a direct revelation from heaven (Luke 7:29, 30). He voiced the precious Word of God.
Arthur W. Pink, in his Exposition of the Gospel of John (p. 54, used by permission of the Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan), says, "In the first place, the word exists (in the mind) before the voice articulates it." So Christ had existed long before "the voice" spoke of Him. "Second, the voice is simply the vehicle or medium by which the word is made known." So John came to bear witness to "the Word." "Again, the voice is simply heard but not seen. John was not seeking to display himself. His work was to get men to listen to his God-given message in order that they might behold the Lamb . . . Finally, we may add, that the word endures after the voice is silent."
In the wilderness—what a place to begin preaching!
He did not preach in the Jews’ Temple at Jerusalem, or in their synagogues, or in crowded market places. He preached in sparsely populated areas; then only those really concerned would go to hear him. Real effort, time and expense, would be needed to see and hear this strange speaker. As usual, curiosity drew crowds and in this case the people were not disappointed. They heard a real prophet, the first since Malachi, after four hundred silent years.
"Prepare ye the way of the Lord," was his mission and message. John did prepare the way for the ministry of the Messiah. If he had not done his work well as an advance agent, then Christ would not likely have had as long an unhindered ministry as He did have. But John won a multitude of people to be on Christ’s side, and this caused the murderous foes of Christ to hesitate. On one occasion they said, "Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people" (Matthew 26:5).
John prepared the way of the Lord by preaching Christian doctrines, Christian ethics and Christ-like righteousness. He declared the deity of Christ so well that those who believed him followed Christ unquestioningly (John 1:35-49). The Baptist’s announcements of Christ were so credible that "many resorted unto him [Christ] , and said, John did no miracle: but all things that John spake of this man were true" (John 10:41). Twentieth century pastors may do likewise, but their lives and words must ring true. Parents of growing children must live so well; they must walk such a straight path, and their conversation must point to Christ so consistently that when their children follow their example, they will go directly to Christ. When this occurs—and it does in countless churches and happy homes— then pastors and parents may say with the Apostle John, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth" (3 John 4).
"Make straight in the desert a highway for our God" (Is. 40:3, l.c.). John the Baptist blazed a trail in the world’s wilderness of religions that still remains as the straightest ever made by mortal man. This superb highway-builder prepared the way which leads straight to God and heaven. Then when Christ came to do His earthly work, He walked that very same road, leading His followers to salvation and to the Father’s house with its many mansions. Fortunate are all those now who have living examples to follow, whose paths are so plain and straight that no one needs to err by following them.
The aged mother of President Harry S. Truman, understandably proud of her son, commended him by saying, "No one could plow a straighter furrow than Harry." She referred to his ability with a team of horses and a plow; how much greater is it to walk the straight and narrow path of righteousness.
Not only did the Baptist make a straight highway for his Lord; he also set an example for every preacher to follow. This text in Isaiah is also a ‘command to every Christian. Obedience to it is obligatory; it is not optional. Dr. C. W. Koller tells of a certain father who failed in this, and then had the agonizing experience of losing his grown son. At the graveside he kept repeating with hot tears, "He never heard his daddy pray. He never heard his daddy pray."
This fertile text in Isaiah says more. It declares, with the references in the Gospels, the deity of Christ. "Make straight in the desert a highway for our God." The text refers to Christ. He is our God and Savior, all the blatant false "witnesses" in the world notwithstanding.
"Every valley shall be exalted" (Is. 40:4). Oriental custom demanded elaborate preparations for the coming of a king to visit a city. Smooth and level roads had to be built for the comfort of the royal equipage. The host province or city spared neither money nor manpower to make a good impression upon the visiting monarch. That is the picture which Isaiah gives concerning the work of the forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Modern road building is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. The famous autobahns of Germany, devised by Hitler for military efficiency, are being copied by many nations at fabulous expense. These superhighways are always nearly level, with valleys filled and hills bisected, just as Isaiah described them hundreds of years ago. Surely these great freeways carry moral lessons! Those that John built are freighted with eternal truth.
The "valleys" which are exalted may refer to the poor and the meek, those who are ignored or slighted by the world’s high and mighty. Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven . . . Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:3, 5). Concern for the poor is a hallmark of Christianity. When John the Baptist was in prison and needed encouragement, Jesus referred to His miracles of healing and then added, "the poor have the gospel preached to them" (Matthew 11:5).
The Magnificat of Mary spoke the same word beautifully. "He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away" (Luke 1:52, 53). Gentle Mary’s lovely voice harmonized perfectly with the stentorian tones of the rugged Baptist. The same Spirit can bring music to all men of good will.
When Christ selected twelve men for special training He did not call the prominent Sadducees or Pharisees or Scribes; instead He chose fishermen and a tax collector. Not one of the Twelve is known to have been a schoolman. Peter and John were "uneducated, common men" (RSV of Acts 4:13), yet they were effective after their training by Christ and infilling by the Holy Spirit. And Paul, known to have been well educated, wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, "Not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called . . . But God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty . . . That no flesh should glory in his presence." Notice that Paul said "not many"; he did not say "not any."
"Every mountain and hill shall be made low" (Is. 40:3). This may refer to the proud, haughty and hypocritical people whom Christ exposed so thoroughly in Matthew 23 and elsewhere. It could refer to religious Pharisees in every age. But let every man examine himself to see if pride has infected him. "Search me, O God . . . and see if there be any wicked way in me" (Ps. 139:23, 24).
With caution one may consider the eagerness of ambitious students and their equally ambitious professors who seem to be enamored and captivated by critics who have a reputation for much learning. How fascinated they are by that magic word "scholarship!" To be considered scholarly is their most cherished dream; to be called unscholarly the greatest insult. Some would give their right arms, and some have risked their eternal souls, for this will-o’-the-wisp. Stranger still, it seems that these status-seekers orbit around critics of the Bible more readily than around those who believe it to be true. "A little learning is a dangerous thing," especially to those who equate scholarship with skepticism. To those tempted to underrate divine revelation in favor of modern rationalism, let them recall that Eve fell for Satan’s bait when she saw that it was "to be desired to make one wise" (Gen. 3:6).
Dr. T. A. Patterson wrote in the Baptist Standard (May 16, 1962), "It happens today that there are men who are infatuated with the writings of some German theologians whose views in some instances cannot be reconciled with the Scriptures. Would that they might get excited about the theology of the New Testament! This might happen too if the theologians were to read in the luminescence of the New Testament’s simple language rather than the New Testament’s being read in the phosphorescent glow of high-sounding theological opinion. It may be permissible, even wise, for students to become acquainted with the thinking of such men as Bultman, Tillich, Niebuhr, Barth and Brunner; but the message for the world must be, `Thus saith the Lord.’ "
"And the crooked shall be made straight" is the next part of the prophecy concerning John the Baptist. Crooks, like the poor, are ever with us. Zacchaeus was likely a dishonest tax collector until his sudden conversion (Luke 19:1-10). He was quick to straighten out all his extortionate deals. Matthew may also have been a grafter before his conversion. He had been won to the Lord by John the Baptist who also baptized him. (Acts 1:21, 22 indicates that the twelve apostles, plus others, had been with the Lord Jesus, "beginning from the baptism of John." This will be noted more fully later, but it is important to remember that the Baptist DID prepare the Twelve for his Lord.) When Jesus called Matthew he had become an honest publican, sitting at the receipt of custom, being fair with both Romans and Jews (Matthew 9:9). His previous conversion enabled him to follow Christ immediately. "And he left all, rose up, and followed him" (Luke 5:28). He must have "left all" in the hands of an assistant whom he had trained, and whom he had warned that such a call might occur at any time. This supposition accounts for all the facts involved. Then Matthew made "a great feast in his own house" and invited many publicans to hear Jesus. Inviting the unsaved to a meal, with a planned conversation about Christ, is still one of the most effective methods ever used to win people to the Lord.
"And the rough places plain" (Is. 40:3, i.e.). Luke translates this, "the rough ways shall be made smooth" (Luke 3:5). Our street and highway maintenance crews have plenty of work to do in order to provide smooth motoring. In the religious realm, we have carpeted floors in our churches, airfoam cushions in the pews, air-conditioned sanctuaries with soft and indirect lighting, meticulously trained ushers, choirs and preachers—all for comfort. More to the point, the Gospel of John and of Christ takes the roughness out of sorrows, sickness, death, trials and temptations.
What follows all this elaborate preparation described by Isaiah? He tells us in the following verse. "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." Luke says, "And all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6). Whenever the Holy Spirit directs the sermons, as He did in the Baptist’s preaching, then the glory of the Lord will be revealed. But no man can exalt himself and the Lord at the same time. If a preacher is out to make a reputation for wisdom, eloquence or popularity, the Lord will suffer correspondingly. A self-seeking minister is not a soul winner. On the other hand, one who honors God will himself be honored. "Them that honor me I will honor," said the Lord in 1 Samuel 2:30. And David spoke wisely in Psalm 34:2, "My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad."
"All flesh shall see it together," wrote Isaiah, long before television showed hundreds of converts responding to Graham’s invitations, seen around the world. And the Word of God, at least in part, may now be read by people of over fourteen hundred different languages and dialects.
Surely, "prophecy is the mould of history." Thanks to Isaiah for this prophetic preview of the first New Testament Christian.
The majestic message of Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet, foretells John the Baptist and makes mention of his mission. "Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts" (Mal. 3:1). The first two clauses of this verse are quoted of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27). Thus Malachi reinforces the prophecy of Isaiah. And John was content to be a messenger for his Lord.
The Old Testament closes with a. prophecy foretelling John the Baptist, corroborated by Luke 1:17. "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Mal. 4:5, 6).
This suggests a great improvement in home life. America’s divorce rate, its unhappy homes, its juvenile delinquents, and its terrible crime rate, all these cry out for the prescription written by Malachi and filled by John the Baptist. For true Christianity means happy homes, filled with mutual love.
In Genesis 37, Joseph’s older brothers were very cruel to him; they would have killed him except for Reuben’s intercession. Later, after they had little children of their own, they had become "true men": their own children had softened their hearts. So when God wanted to turn the hearts of fathers, He sent His Son as a little infant to Israel. But even before the Christ child came to Bethlehem, the Lord sent the baby John, born of Zacharias and Elizabeth. "And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth" (Luke 1:14).
"The Luck of Roaring Camp," a western frontier story told by Bret Harte, supports the fact that hard hearts are melted by a helpless infant. A baby was born of a woman (Cherokee Sal) who died in childbirth, while in a rough mining camp. The men appointed one of their number to care for him, and all were solicitous of his welfare. These rough men, to whom fights and duels to the death were commonplace, were now united in loving a little baby boy. This trait of human nature explains the magic of Mary’s firstborn. Who but a Herod, a Hitler or an Eichmann can resist a baby’s sweet smile? "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given" (Is. 9:6).
Before this Child was born, before the Son of God was given to the world at Bethlehem, another child was born. An angel of the Lord told his father, "thou shalt call his name John" (Luke 1:13). This child of prophecy, with even his name foretold, was pre-natal rich with promise. At his birth people said of him, "What manner of child shall this be!" (Luke 1:66).
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