In our last post, we looked at the book of Malachi and saw how it bridged the gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In it, Malachi stated Elijah would prepare the people for Yahweh’s return. And we ended that post showing how John the Baptist was seen as Elijah. In this post, I want to extend our look at John.
In Matthew 3, we’re given a description of John. In verse 4, it says:
John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
That’s some pretty specific details. What could be the purpose of this information? It’s widely accepted that Matthew’s audience were Jewish and they would’ve got the reference. In 2 Kings 1, it states:
Ahaziah fell out the window of his second-story room in Samaria and was hurt. He sent messengers, telling them, “Go to Ekron’s god Baal-zebub, and ask if I will recover from this injury.” …
The messengers returned to Ahaziah. He said to them, “Why have you come back?”
They said to him, “A man met us and said, ‘Go back to the king who sent you. Say to him, This is what the [Yahweh] says: Is it because there’s no God in Israel that you’ve come to question Ekron’s god Baal-zebub? Because of this, you will never get out of the bed you are lying in; you will die for sure!”
Ahaziah said to them, “Describe the man who met you and said these things.”
They said to him, “He wore clothes made of hair with a leather belt around his waist.”
Ahaziah said, “That was Elijah from Tishbe.”
We see here, clearly, that Matthew’s purpose for describing John was to bring to mind, right from the beginning, that John was, somehow, Elijah. And it’s a theme he returns to again and again (see Matthew 11.1-15; 17.10-13). That Elijah played a huge part of Matthew’s story is an understatement. He runs through the entire Gospel.
Now let’s look at some of the things John said. Also in Matthew 3, while John was baptizing people from “Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan river” (verses 5-6), some Pharisees and Sadducees came to him as well. He said to them:
“You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
Wow. That’s some pretty harsh language. But notice the nearness of his warnings:
“Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon?
“The ax is already at the root of the trees.”
And then, in kind of a slight-of-hand way, he points to a coming figure, who he’s not even worthy enough to carry his sandals, who will execute this “angry judgment.” He says:
“The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into the barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”
These aren’t things that John supposes will happen eventually, someday, way off in the future. Or even when they stand before G_d at the end of time. These are things that John expects to happen soon. Specifically, to the people he’s talking to—the Pharisees and Sadducees! He uses the pronoun “you” roughly nine times in that short paragraph. That’s pretty specific, too.
It seems very clear, then, that John believed he was the harbinger of this soon coming “angry judgment.” He also seemed keenly aware that he was also the herald of the one who would execute this judgment. We learn a little while later, that the one he was speaking about was his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 3.13ff; cf. John 1.29-34).
In conclusion, let’s tie this back in to Elijah. The significance that John was Elijah can’t be brought out enough. As we saw last time, Elijah was to usher in Yahweh’s return to Israel. Matthew is showing his readers that, mystically, Elijah’s return happened through John the Baptist. But just like everything else we read in the Gospels, even the return of Elijah wasn’t what the people were expecting. Jesus takes the almost tangible expectation of Elijah’s return and spins it on it’s head. Which, again, points to the unthinkable—if John was Elijah, and Elijah was to prepare the people for Yahweh’s return, then, however crazy it seems, Jesus was Yahweh.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC