John the Baptist bursts into the world of the New Testament with all the passion and fire of a thunder and lightning storm. Yet his connection to the Old Testament was not missed by the Gospel writers, or those who waited expectantly for the appearance of the Messiah. The church leaders who organized the canon also saw the connection. The Old Testament finishes with the eloquent words of Malachi and the promise of the return of Elijah the prophet before the arrival of the Messiah (Mal. 4:5-6). Interestingly, all four Gospels link the beginning of Jesus' ministry to the preaching and ministry of John the Baptist. The importance of this is explained in Mal. 3:1; a messenger would appear to prepare the way for the Lord.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke also draw a connection to Isaiah's prophecy concerning a messenger like Elijah too (Is.40:3; Mk. 1:3; Mt. 3:3; Lk. 3:4). Luke makes note of one critical and distinct link between John the Baptist and Elijah. He sees that like Elijah, John received his message from God (Lk. 3:2) and, using similar to the Old Testament, relates the call of John to that of the prophets (Is. 1:1-2; Jer. 1:1-2; 1 Ki. 17:13). Luke acknowledges that John is a spokesman for God as were his prophetic predecessors. But it is Matthew who ties the strongest link between the prophetic fulfillment of Malachi with Elijah because it is his intention throughout his Gospel to demonstrate that everything about Jesus’ life was just that-a fulfillment of prophecy- so that there would be no confusion over whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. As such John the Baptist would fulfill prophecy as well.
John had several characteristics that the people immediately recognized as being like Elijah. First, John came from the wilderness in Judea to the Sea of Galilee to preach and baptize (Mt. 3:1; Mk. 1:4-5; Lk. 3:3). Elijah ministered in this region as well. It stretched from the lower tip of the Sea of Galilee where it met the Jordan River, down through the Jordan Valley to Jericho and Jerusalem. John's attire was a carbon copy of his illustrious predecessor. Elijah was noted as a "hairy man with leather girded around his loins" (2 Ki. 1:8) as was John (Mt. 3:4). Secondly, Elijah met the apostasy and unbelief of Israel head on (1 Ki. 18:21). His outspoken condemnation of the duplicitous religious activity of both the common folk and royalty, earned him a spot on Queen Jezebel's hit list. John was also outspoken on matters of religious purity. He challenged the crowds who were coming to be baptized by making them analyze why they were seeking him out. Did they come for a show? Or did they truly understand that repentance translated into a permanent change of behavior which resulted in actions that were in line with God's commands in Torah (Lk. 3: 8, 10-14)? He particularly targeted those who came because it was the “in-thing” to do (Mt. 3:7-12). And lastly, both Elijah and John evoked a response from the people. When the people saw the failure of Baal's prophets, they fell prostrate and cried, "The Lord, He is God!" (1 Ki. 18:38). Likewise, the multitudes of John’s day asked for instruction, "Then what shall we do?" (Mt. 3:1-6; Lk. 3:10).
The people gathered on the banks of the Jordan River and waited to hear the prophet speak. They were anticipating a passionate message blasting the oppressive rule of Rome or the adulterous lifestyle of Herod. Instead his words cut open their hearts and made them recognize their need to turn from their own sinful ways back to God's ways. One by one, they stepped into the Jordan to rededicate their lives by repenting; first walking into the Jordan one way, and then climbing out another- a visible sign of turning away from sin and toward God. Put yourself on the shoreline. Listen to the words of the prophet. How will you answer his message? Will you see your own need? Will you respond as they did and ask, "Then, what shall I do?"
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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