|JOHN THE BAPTIST,
THE HERALD OF THE MESSIAH'S COMING
In Israel it is sometimes asked why the New Testament quotes "our" Old
Testament here and there, or what John the Baptist has to do from a prophetic
point of view as Jesus' forerunner. The words "ours" and "yours" recur
again and again in the questions. However, the New Testament is, with the
exception of Luke, "Jewish" literature in its entirety, and the Messianic
idea, by its very nature, must be grounded in the OT prophetic light.
We have seen that the fate of John the Baptist occupied the thoughts
of the historian Josephus, who considered the failure of Herod Antipas
in his border skirmishes with King Aretas to be a consequence of his execution
of John. The Slavic version mentions further that John had reproached Herod
for his marriage to his brother's wife Herodias. But how does all this
relate to the Jewish Messianic expectation and to the Biblical prophecies?
The gospel of John provides us with a remarkable detail concerning the
inception of John the Baptist's ministry:
"Now this was John's testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests
ans Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed
freely, 'I am not the Christ.' They asked him, 'Then who are you? Are you
Elijah?' He said, 'I am not.' 'Are you the Prophet?' He answered, 'No.'
Finally they said, 'Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those
who sent us. What do you say about yourself?' John replied in the words
of Isaiah the prophet, 'I am the voice of one calling in the
desert,"Make straight the way for the Lord""' (1:19-23).
We have already seen that Josephus described Jesus Ben Ananos as "a voice
calling out", warning Jerusalem of its impending destruction, and John
the Baptist too functioned partly as a harbinger of doom.
The gospel of Matthew mentions that his disciples asked him,
"'Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?'
Jesus replied, 'To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But
I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognise him, but
they have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of
Man is going to suffer at their hands.' Then the disciples understood that
he was talking to them about John the Baptist" (17:10-13).
From this we understand that John's function was to prepare the hearts
of men for the coming of the Christ and to set everything "in order". As
Elijah he also functioned as the forerunner of the Messiah.
The Rabbis do not see the same connection between the "voice calling
in the wilderness" of Isaiah 40 and the Messiah. For them discussion of
the herald of the Messiah's coming is primarily associated with Micah 2:13
and Malachi 3:1 and 4:5-6 but also with Isaiah 52:7-8, some verses in the
Psalms and even the prayers from the Jewish prayerbook.
We read in Isaiah 52:7-8:
"How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good
news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion, 'Your God reigns!' Listen! Your watchmen lift up their
voices; together they shout for joy. When the LORD returns to Zion, they
will see it with their own eyes."
Yalkut Shimoni says of these verses that: "In the hour when the Holy
One delivers Israel, three days before the Messiah comes, Elijah will come
and stand on the mountains of Israel and weep and lament over them." 1
In Micah 2:13 the Sages find a reference to the Messianic herald: "One
who prepares the way will go before them . . . and the Lord will lead them."
Rabbi Shlomo Yitshaq (1040-1105AD), the most famous Mediaeval expositor
of the Talmud and the whole Old Testament, of whom the abbreviation RaSHI,
made from the initial letters of his first names, is generally used, says
of this 'one who prepares the way' that he is "the one who opens up the
way of their deliverance". Rabbi David Qimhi, or RaDaQ, of whom
it is said, "without him there is no correct understanding of the Bible",
considered the 'opener of the way' to be Elijah, but the 'King' and
the 'Lord' of this verse to be "the Branch, the Son of David". The
popular Jewish commentary on the prophetic scriptures, the Metsudat
David, which was composed at the end of the 17th century, understands
this verse as referring to:
"the prophet Elijah, who will come before the time of deliverance to
extend the hearts of the Israelites to their heavenly father in order to
be a herald of redemption to them". . . "but their king is the Messiah
king and the Lord will go before them, because at that time he will send
back his Holy Spirit to Zion."2
In these expositions we find closely associated with each other the themes
of Elijah coming as a herald of redemption, the Messiah, and the coming
of the Holy Spirit in the Messianic age.
At the beginning of Malachi chap. 3 we read,
"'See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.
Then suddenly the LORD you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger
of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,' says the LORD Almighty."
RaDaQ, without further ado, says of this verse that, "The Lord is the
Messiah-King and he is the Angel of the Covenant". The Metsudat David
makes a distinction in its interpretation between the Lord and the Angel
of the covenant: "The Lord is the Messiah-King whom the eye of every
man longs to see, waiting for him and hoping for his coming; and the Angel
of the Covenant means the prophet Elijah." This interpretation does
indeed fit the description at the end of Malachi:
"See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful
day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their
children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers." 3
The Jews always remember Elijah as the Herald of the Messiah's coming
at the Passover meal, with the so-called "cup of blessing" or "third cup".
At the Sabbath afternoon meal, popularly called the "Messiah's meal", reference
is still today made to the name of Elijah side by side with the Messiah.
In the beautiful prayer composed by Elazar Kalir we read: "I rejoice
and make merry in my heart . . . argue, my quarrel, and bring the Redeemer
to Zion. Let the Branch sprout, Elijah and the Messiah-King."4
So much inner defensiveness, so many concealed hurts and mental blocks
build up within us that God, in his foreseeing grace, often sends to us
those who prepare our hearts for the gospel message.
Another remarkable Messianic Herald interpretation is connected with
Ps. 43:3: "Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me." The
Midrash for the Psalms explains these words as meaning: "To that generation
you will send two deliverers, as it is written [Ps. 105:26]: 'He sent Moses
his servant, and Aaron whom he had chosen'. And to that generation he will
also send two who will correspond one to the other: 'Send forth your light
and your truth'; here 'light' means the prophet Elijah from the house of
Aaron, and 'truth' means the Messiah, Son of David."5
To this could be added many popular Rabbinic stories of Elijah as the herald
of the Messiah's coming, and we can understand in the same way what the
New Testament says about John the Baptist as Jesus' forerunner.
That Luke devotes over 40 verses plus a beautiful poetic hymn to the
birth of John the Baptist is revealing.6
John's father Zechariah praises God because he has "raised up a horn of
salvation for us" -- 'horn' in Hebrew expressing radiance and glory. Zechariah
"And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for
you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his
people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come
to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow
of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace."
Scholars see in such hymns source material which is particularly reliable
and thus deserving of close scrutiny. Their message, furthermore, reflects
the universal Messianic expectation of the time in question. The ministry
of John the Baptist relates to the "time of redemption" which he, as the
Messianic Herald, came to make ready.
Shimoni, Is. 52:14.
2. See Mikraoth
3. See the interpretation
of Mikraoth Gedoloth
4. Sidur prayer-book.
5. See Midrash
6. Luke 1:5-25 and
The next chapter "THE
BIRTH OF JESUS IN THE LIGHT OF THE GOSPELS"
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