John the Baptist had a very short public ministry. Yet in that time, he managed to fulfill all the prophecies about him being the forerunner, lived a humbled life, all the while pointing to Jesus as the Messiah. John the Baptist played a pivoted role in the economy of salvation, by being the last of the Old Testament Prophets and being the first follower of Jesus Christ.
Prophecies carry a lot of weight in the Jewish Culture, and in order to understand John the Baptist one needs to look at the prophecies that predicted his coming, and spoken at his conception and birth. The prophets who predicted his coming as the forerunner of Christ was Isaiah, and Malachi. Isaiah predicted that a voice would cry out “‘Prepare in the wilderness a road for the LORD! Clear the way in the Desert for our God!’” (Isaiah 40:3). Each of the four Gospels has John describing himself as the voice in the desert. According to Alexander J. Burke, John went into the desert at the age 12 and after about 20 years studying of the Scriptures, fasting, and prayer was he ready to begin his mission. John’s ministry began in the desert, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. Nevertheless, John was sent to prepare a way for the Lord, not just in the desert but also in all of Jerusalem. The prophecy of Malachi predicted not just the role of John but also of Jesus. Malachi 3:1 says, “‘I will send my messenger to prepare the way for me. Then the Lord you are looking for will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger you long to see will come and proclaim my covenant.’”. Without John the Baptist to prepare the hearts of the people, then the message and role of Jesus would have fell on unprepared soil and would have withered away and died. However, because John came first and prepared the hearts of the people, they were ready for the forgiveness that Jesus had to give them.
However Malachi’s prophecy had a second part, “‘But before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes, I will send you the prophet Elijah’” (Malachi 4:5). Many believe that this reference is not of John the Baptist coming but that Elijah will come before Christ comes again for the time of Judgement. However, Alexander J. Burke, in his book John the Baptist, states that the John the Baptist was not as Elijah himself had returned, “But as a figure who, like Elijah, would evoke the day eschatological judgement”. In addition, when the Angel of the Lord came to Zechariah to announce the birth of John, the Angel also spoke of John’s role in the economy of salvation. That John would go before Jesus “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers and the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just”. (Luke 1:17).
In John 1:21, John the Baptist denies that he is Elijah returned, but that was not to contradict what was written in the Old Testament, nor to contradict what Jesus said about him in Matthew 17:10-13. The Jewish People and Priests did not recognize John the Baptist as Elijah and thus die with him as they pleased. Therefore, when Priests asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah, his denial of being Elijah was not a denial of his role as the forerunner, but a denial of the Jewish misperception of Elijah’s’ coming. For the Jews wanted to exult the one that was Elijah come again, and John did not want to lead the Jewish People further astray by focusing on whether he was Elijah, instead he wanted them to focus on the message of repentance.
The purpose of John the Baptist in identifying Christ was to point the way to the true Messiah. Many people of that time believed that John was the Messiah, when in actuality John was of the reflection of the Messiah. John being the Precursor was a light to those who was in darkness. He preached repentance and of the Kingdom of Heaven, just as the other prophets did, and after 450 years since the last prophet, Malachi, the people were expecting the Messiah. The Jewish people had studied the prophecies at great length, to the point that they were blind to the prophecies coming true before them. Even the Scribes and High Priests did not recognize John as the precursor and they spent their lives studying the scriptures and the law. Instead, they saw him as the messiah, and so they sent some priests and Levites to ask John who he was. John knowing that they wanted him to say that he was the messiah set them straight right off the bat with “’I am not the Messiah.’” (John 1:20). John’s role was not to forgive the sins of the people, but to bring them to repentance, that way when Jesus’ time came they would be ready for the forgiveness of their sins.
During John the Baptist imprisonment, he sent some of his followers to Jesus to ask him if he was indeed the one that was to come, or should they wait for another. Many speculate that the question may have been for himself. Instead, his question to Jesus in Matthew may not have been a question just for himself, but for his followers as well. John being a Levite and of the House of Priests knew the signs of the Messiah. Yet his followers not knowing the scriptures as well, and being blind by their love for John, would not have noticed the signs. Moreover, with John in prison, the news he wanted to hear of Jesus being the Messiah was limited by what the guards said, and his followers thought was pertinent, began to despair. Therefore, John sent them with the question “are you the one that John said was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). Jesus’s reply was not a normal yes; instead, he used his actions as a method to say yes. If Jesus just said yes, then the Jews that were there would have tried to seize him to make him king as they did in John 6:15, because the majority of the Jews believed that the Messiah was to be a great and powerful king, not someone who walked around preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven and working miracles. Yet John the Baptist would know that Jesus was indeed the Messiah by his actions of healing, which, Isaiah foretolded as the coming Messiah.
John the Baptist was the first follower of Christ and died a death like Christ, before Christ, in order to always point to Christ, and as the forerunner of Christ, it was his mission to prepare the hearts of the Jewish people to be ready for forgiveness from their sins. He succeeded at his mission, always ready to give everything to Christ, and by doing that he fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi.
Good News Bible with Deuterocanonicals/ Apocrypha. New York: American Bible Society, 2003.
“HAYDOCK COMMENTARY (2advhay.htm).” HAYDOCK COMMENTARY (2advhay.htm). Accessed March 30, 2015. http://www.dailycatholic.org/2advhay.htm.
Jr., Alexander J. Burke. John the Baptist: Prophet and Disciple. Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2006.
Written in March 29, 2015
Frances Lejeune is a student at Catholic Distance University and is a Theology Major. She is expected to receive her Associates June of 2019. She also writes about day to day life about living with depression, anxiety and loss.