“[John] said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah said’ ” (v. 23).
Four hundred years or so passed between the end of the ministry of the prophet Malachi and the appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea (Matt. 3:1). During those four centuries, there was no prophet in Israel, but the Jews knew that at least one more prophet would be sent by God before the day of the Lord. As Malachi 4:5 explains, God had promised to send Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers before the final judgment.
Given this reality, it is no surprise that people took notice when John the Baptist arrived on the scene appearing much like the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:7–8; Mark 1:6). John’s gospel tells us that John the Baptist’s ministry caught the attention of the Jewish leaders, for the Jews of Jerusalem—likely a reference to the ruling council known as the Sanhedrin—sent a group to inquire into the identity of John (John 1:19). The reason for the inquiry was likely as political as it was religious, for during the first century, it was not uncommon for Jewish individuals to proclaim themselves the Messiah and attempt to lead an uprising against the occupying Roman Empire.
In any case, John responded to the party inquiring after him that he was not the Christ—the promised Messiah who would restore Israel—or “the Prophet”—the prophet like Moses who would mediate a new covenant (Deut. 18:15). Interestingly, John the Baptist also denied that he was the Elijah predicted in Malachi 4:5, which seems to contradict Jesus’ statement after John’s death that John fulfilled this prophecy (Matt. 17:9–13). The reason for this difference lies in a misunderstanding as to what Malachi meant. The Jews were expecting a literal return of Elijah, and in that respect, John the Baptist certainly was not Elijah. However, Malachi did not predict a return of the very same Elijah in the flesh. Just as many prophets used the name “David” as a designation for the coming Messiah from David’s line, Malachi used “Elijah” to identify a coming prophet who would have much in common with Elijah’s ministry. So, in the sense that John came with a ministry like Elijah’s, he certainly fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy about Elijah (see Jer. 30:9; Luke 1:8–17).
But John the Baptist told the Jews more than who he was not. He told them he was the voice crying in the wilderness predicted by Isaiah (John 1:22–23; see Isa. 40:3–5). John the Baptist was the one sent by God to proclaim the restoration of the kingdom.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
John the Baptist was careful not to claim more for himself than he actually deserved, and he eagerly pointed people to Christ. In that way, he serves as a model for us. We should not claim more about ourselves than is actually true, and we should be ready to proclaim Christ to the people we know.