Tag Archives: John the Baptist

[Life of Christ] Birth of Elijah the Way-Preparer

[Note: if you find any typos or mistakes, please let me know.]

[Note 2: To download te worksheet for this lesson, click here.]

At the end of the Old Testament, God inspired Malachi to say these words:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of Jehovah. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse (Malachi 4:5-6).

From that point forward, the Jewish people had been watching and waiting for this man cryptically called Elijah. There is even a place in the New Testament where some Jews ask a man if he is Elijah.[1] Some believed Jesus was Elijah.[2] Three of Jesus’ apostles asked Him why the scribes said Elijah must come before the Messiah.[3]

All this to say, there was an expectation that Elijah was coming—but almost everyone (including the apostles) missed it when he did come. This predicted Elijah is better known as John the Baptist, though it is more accurate to call him John the Immerser.[4]

Matthew, Mark, and John introduce John as a fully-grown preacher of repentance in the wilderness. They don’t tell us anything about his history, and that’s understandable, given why and to whom each gospel was written.[5] But Luke, as a historian, wanted his readers to know who this strangely-dressed man in the wilderness was, where he came from, and why he was important.

The Setting (Luke 1:5-10)

In the days of Herod [the Great], the king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abijah. His wife, whose name was Elizabeth, was of the daughters of Aaron. Both of them were righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinance of the Lord—blamelessly. They had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.

It came to pass that while he performed the priestly office before the Lord in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priestly role, his duty was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.

And the whole multitude of people were praying outside at the time of [the burning of] incense.

During the Reign of Herod

It has been popular for the last century or so to say Herod died in 4BC,[6] meaning that both Jesus and John would have had to be born at least two years earlier (Matthew 2:16), though the majority of early Christian writers who dealt with the issue dated Herod’s death around 1 BC, thus placing the birth of Jesus in either 3 or 2 BC,[7] and thus John’s birth six months earlier. Ultimately, the exact date doesn’t matter for our salvation, but since Luke saw fit to give us some context, I thought it worth at least mentioning in passing.

But even more important is the political context. Herod was a foreigner, an Idumean (Edomite), who was made king over Judea by Rome. Jews who read Daniel understood that the Kingdom of God was going to be established during the days of the Fourth Kingdom—the Roman Empire.[8]

Zacharias the Priest

Zechariah[9] or Zacharias[10] (We’re gonna go with Zacharias) was a Jewish priest, descended from Aaron through either Eleazar or Ithamar, Aaron’s two sons who didn’t get zapped with fire from the LORD back in Leviticus 10. Under King David, the priests were divided into 24 subgroups, based on which grandson of Aaron they were descended from. These 24 subgroups took turns serving in the temple.[11]

It has been suggested by some that Zacharias was the legitimate high priest, but not the high priest in practice. Rome liked having control over leaders, and they sold the office of high priest to the highest bidder—whether he was the legitimate high priest or not. Evidence for Zacharias possibly being the high priest are:

  1. God commanded Aaron (the high priest) to burn incense in the temple (Exodus 30:7-8); God inspired Luke to mention Zacharias was burning incense in the temple (Luke 1:9).
  2. God commanded Zacharias that his son would not drink wine nor strong drink (Luke 1:15); the high priest was not allowed to drink wine or strong drink while serving the Lord (Leviticus 10:8-9).[12]
  3. Zacharias’ wife was named Elizabeth (Luke 1:5); Aaron (the first high priest) was married to a woman with the same name (the Hebrew version of it): Elisheba (Exodus 6:23).[13] [14]
  4. Many ancient Christian writers stated Zacharias was high priest, among them Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Ambrose, Theodoret, Dionysius the Areopagite, Theophlact, and others.[15]
  5. The Protoevangelium of James, an early piece of religious fan-fiction (perhaps as early as AD 150), identifies Zacharias, father of John the Baptizer, as the high priest.[16]
  6. The fact that everyone was outside the temple, awaiting Zacharias to come back out, indicates he went in alone. This has led several to believe it was the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would go in the temple alone.[17]
  7. Josephus seems to indicate that though Rome installed the high priests each year, there were at least times when a special high priest was put in place exclusively on the Day of Atonement, apparently to make sure the sacrifice and offering was made by the right person. It is suggested Zacharias was this special high priest in Luke 1.[18]
  8. Zacharias is described as “well advanced in years,” but regular priests were required to retire at 50 years old. The high priest, however, served until his death.

You might think, Well that’s interesting and all, but does it really matter? It doesn’t matter, so far as salvation is concerned, but if it is true, it also means that John the Baptist was the legitimate high priest when he baptized Jesus, and when he said, “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.” In other words, if Zacharias was God’s legitimate high priest, then John was too, and potentially the last legitimate high priest. I’m not saying it definitely is the case, but it a neat thought nonetheless.[19]

At the very least, John the Immerser was legitimately a priest, and he worked to cleanse people from their sins by teaching them repentance, baptism, and pointing them to Jesus.

Elizabeth the Daughter of Aaron

She is not just a Levite, but a descendant of Aaron, meaning any children she has with her husband would be of priestly bloodline from both sides. Unfortunately, poor Elizabeth wasn’t able to have children. She was barren, and besides that, any hope she’d had for having children (like Rachel) evaporated as she got older and older. And her husband Zacharias was no spring chicken either.

The Couple

Zacharias and Elizabeth must have been amazing people, even if they couldn’t have children. God declared them righteous, because they “walk[ed] in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord—blamelessly.” Wouldn’t you love to have that said about you?

This means they loved the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. It means they loved their neighbor as themselves. It means they obeyed the commands of God from the heart. And they didn’t pick and choose which ones they liked, which ones were easier—they followed all the commands of God, and no one could legitimately say otherwise.

Sounds like they would have made great parents…

In the Temple

Zacharias is inside the temple, offering incense inside the temple (on the altar of incense). Given that there were 24 classes of priests, with who knows how many priests in each class, and each class only serving a week at a time, twice a year—getting to go into the temple and offer the incense was something that a priest might only be able to do once in his entire life.

And all the people were outside praying during this time.

The Announcement (Luke 1:11-17)

An angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense, appeared to [Zacharias]. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell on him.

But the angel said to him, “Don’t be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth shall bear you a son, and you will call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness; and many will rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord. He shall not drink wine nor strong drink, and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. And he shall turn  many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedience to the wisdom of the righteous; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

The Angel Appears

This angel, later identified as Gabriel, shows up on the right side of the Altar of incense. That means he’s standing in front of the veil between the holy place and the most holy place (or holy of holies). Zacharias is supposed to be alone, so this is quite a shock—even if the angel took on an appearance as a normal human. Can you imagine if he appeared like the angels at the tomb of Jesus, with bright shining clothes? And remember too that Zacharias is an older man—hope he has a good heart!

Zacharias is troubled and quite frightened. After all, how did this guy get in here (assuming Gabriel looked like a human)? How did I not see him? Or, if he did look slightly more amazing than a human, Zacharias would be scared because he knows he is in the presence of a heavenly messenger of God.

But the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.” Zacharias had nothing to worry about. God was behind this, and had good news for him.

Elijah John is Coming!

I love the exchange between Zacharias and the angel. The angel starts by saying, “Your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth shall bear you a son.” You realize what that means, right? That means—even though both Zacharias and Elizabeth were well-advanced in years, he was still praying that they would have a child. How’s that for faith?

It is also pretty quick proof that Zacharias wasn’t dealing with a mere human here. This visitor knew what he was praying. (I don’t figure Zacharias was in the habit of letting people know he was praying for he and his wife—both beyond the age of having children—to have a child.) Zacharias would have immediately known this was someone sent from God.

And the angel continues, “You shall call his name John.” I don’t know what Zacharias’ mental reaction was to that. Perhaps he thought (as did others later in this chapter), Why John? But this name comes into play later.

The angel says, “You will have joy and gladness.” Zacharias is probably thinking, If what you’re saying is true, that is an understatement! But the angel continues, “and many shall rejoice at his birth.” I bet they will! This will be a miracle! And people will know that God still listens to and cares for His people!

But then the angel clarifies what he means. It isn’t joy and gladness just because an old couple has a baby. It is “because he shall be great in the sight of the Lord.” I can imagine Zacharias, righteous Zacharias who loves God, being overwhelmed and overjoyed. My son is going to be faithful to the Lord! When so many children fall away, can you imagine a better promise to a parent-to-be?

But also notice that the Lord will call John “great.” Later on, Jesus says, “Among those born of women, no one has risen greater than John the Immerser” (Matthew 11:11).

Then the angel starts giving more detail, which instantly would send Zacharias’ head reeling. “He… will not drink wine nor strong drink.” Is he to be a Nazarite then? But before he has a chance to think more…

“He will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb.” While being “filled with the Holy Spirit” or being “full of the Holy Spirit” happens several times in the New Testament, it is extremely rare in the Old Testament. And it is never said about someone in the womb—except for John. My son is going to be a prophet? My Lord, I know not how to thank you for this grand honor!

I can’t help but believe Zacharias was growing more and more joyous as the angel continued. (1) you will have a son, (2) he will be faithful, (3) he will be great in the eyes of the Lord, (4) he will be full-time dedicated to God from birth, (5) he will be a prophet.

But the angel continues with even more: “Many of the children of Israel will turn to the Lord their God because of him.” Not just a prophet, but a successful one? One who will get through to the people?

And it keeps building: “He will go before Him…” Zacharias didn’t have to ask who the Him was. Malachi 3:1 was something he would have known well:

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me… saith Jehovah of hosts.

Zacharias’ mind must have been racing. My son will be the messenger? My son… foretold by the prophet Malachi?

But then comes the bomb—the most explosive part of the announcement. “…in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” My son… is the Elijah? My son… preparing the way for the Lord? Preparing the way for the Messiah???

The Doubt (Luke 1:18-25)

Zacharias said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? Because I’m old, and my wife is well-advanced in years.”

And the angel answered, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, who was sent to speak to you, and to show you this good news. And behold, you will be mute, not able to speak, until the day these things happen, because you didn’t believe my words, which will happen in their time.”

And the people waited for Zacharias and were amazed that he took so long in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak to them, and they perceived he had seena  vision in the temple, because he beckoned for them, but remained speechless.

And it happened that, as soon as the days of his service were finished, he went to his own house. And after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived and hid herself five months, saying, “Thus has the Lord dealt with me in the days in which He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

Should’ve been Quick to Listen and Slow to Speak

As amazing as this information is, perhaps Zacharias stands in shock for a moment, before his mind starts thinking this is all too amazing to be true. Who is he kidding? We’re too old to have children.

Then he opens his mouth and says it. “How can I be sure of this? Because I’m old, and my wife is well-advanced in years.” Ignoring that he should never have called his wife old, let alone well-advanced in years, he is speaking to an angel of God! He already knows (1) no human could have gotten into the temple without being noticed, and (2) no human would have known his prayers. So I have to assume he was speaking out of fear, confusion, and truly wanting what the angel said to be true, but having a hard time believing it is actually going to happen. Sometimes we wait for something, long for something for so long that it seems it will never happen, and when it does, or when hope arises that it might, our minds are scared to fully buy into it, to fully believe it because we’ve been disappointed so many times before. It is human nature to not want to be disappointed—especially when it is something so personal, so intense, so heart-rending.

I still have to chuckle when I think (1) Zacharias has been praying for he and Elizabeth to have a baby—even in their old age, (2) the angel told him about his prayer, (3) told him God was about to answer the prayer, and (4) then Zacharias tries to explain to the angel why it can’t happen. But we all have our times where we forget what God has done for people. Think Abraham and Sarah.

I’m Gabriel

Gabriel, whose name means Man of God or Warrior of God, only appears twice in the Old Testament. Both times he shows up to explain God’s message to Daniel. So when he identifies himself to Zacharias, the priest knows exactly who he is dealing with.

Gabriel says, “I… stand in the presence of God, and am sent to speak to you, and to show you this good news.[20]” It is like he’s saying, “You want to know how you can be sure? Well, I stand in the presence of God. Who do you think sent me with this message?”

I can imagine Zacharias trying to take this all in. God sent an angel—not just any angel, but Gabriel himself—to talk to me?

Not a Word…

As proof, and a little bit of a punishment for doubting the message, Zacharias is told he won’t be able to speak until these things (specifically the birth of the son and Zacharias naming him John).

When Zacharias steps out of the temple, the people were concerned about what had taken him so long. One ancient Jewish writing says of a High Priest around 200 BC:

Once a certain high priest made a long prayer and [his fellow priests] decided to go in after him—they say this high priest was Shim’on the Righteous. They said to him: “Why did you pray so long?” He said to them: “I was praying that the temple of your God would not be destroyed.” They said to him: “Even so, you should not have prayed so long.”[21]

Perhaps the crowd was worried something had happened to Zacharias, perhaps that he had died in the temple—he was old, after all.

But he waved the crowd to him, and was able to get the point across that he had seen a vision in the temple, but was unable to speak.

So imagine yourself in that scenario. The priest comes out, can’t talk (but he could before), and he, through hand gestures and facial expressions, reveals he has seen a vision—a miraculous message from God! But he can’t tell you what was said, because he can’t speak. And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Zacharias was the kind of husband who wanted to share news with his wife before sharing it with others.

It Begins

So Zacharias finished his work at the temple (how many mute days did he spend working at the temple?) and goes home to his wife. Certainly he conveys to Elizabeth what the angel said (though we aren’t given her reaction). But when she becomes pregnant, her emotions must have been overwhelming. Joy, thankfulness, peace, love.

Elizabeth hid herself for five months. It is assumed by several scholars that she did this to have uninterrupted time to praise and thank God.[22] It is also suggested that she wanted to make sure the pregnancy was going well before she appeared to her friends and shared the good news, perhaps because they would not have taken her seriously if they couldn’t see evidence of it.[23]

She expressed her great thankfulness, because “the Lord…has taken away my reproach among people.” She desperately wanted children, but was unable to have any—and now she was old and childless. She and Zacharias’ family lines would both end with them. Except God had other plans.

The Birth (Luke 1:57-66)

Now the time came for Elizabeth to deliver, and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbors and cousins heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and rejoiced with her. And it happened on the eighth day, when they came for the child’s circumcision, that they called him Zacharias, after his father.

But his mother replied, “No, he will be called John.”

And they said, “There’s no one in your family called by that name.” And they made signs to his father, asking what he wanted him named.

And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.”

And they were all astonished.

Then immediately [Zacharias’] mouth was opened, and his tongue freed, and he spoke and praised God.

Fear came on all those who lived around them. And all these things were reported all throughout the hill country of Judea. Those who heard these things wondered about them in their hearts, saying, “What kind of child will this be?”

And the hand of the Lord was with him.

A Son is Born

In keeping with the promise made by God through Gabriel, Elizabeth gave birth to a son. I am fairly certain this wasn’t a surprise to either her or Zacharias, but it certainly would have been a comforting reassurance of the power and promise of God.

The friends and family, however, apparently weren’t told the whole story ahead of time. In fact, it appears they may not have been told the whole story at all. But regardless, they recognized this as an act of God’s mercy, and  were overjoyed for Elizabeth—and who can resist smiling when they see a newborn baby?

The Meddling Baby-Namers

Apparently it wasn’t uncommon for friends and relatives to name babies that weren’t theirs. When Boaz and Ruth had a son, the neighbors of Naomi (the mother of Ruth’s first husband) took the liberty of naming him Obed.[24] So when it was time for this young child to be circumcised, the neighbors and relatives (I tend to think they were mostly women, probably because of the incident in Ruth) decided his name was Zacharias, after his father.

Certainly this was a sign of respect to Zacharias, that he was looked up to and honored. But whatever he may have thought of the idea, neither he nor Elizabeth was having any of it. Why? Because “they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinance of the Lord—blamelessly.”[25] Naming him John was a command of the Lord, and they weren’t about to disobey—especially after they finally were granted the answer to their prayers for a child.

So Elizabeth flatly stated, “No, he shall be called John.” This brought a chorus of confusion. I can picture them all looking at each other, asking, “Did she say John?” Then (can you imagine doing this?) they started to argue with the brand-new mother about what to name him. “There’s no one in your family with that name,” they said. And they weren’t about to let Elizabeth get away with naming her own child! Then they look to Zacharias for backup.

They “made signs” to Zacharias. This has led some to believe Zacharias was not just mute, but deaf as well.[26] I am not convinced. People tend to treat those with physical disabilities as less able than they really are, and this may just be an example of that. Either way, they wanted to get Zacharias to weigh in on their side.

Can we stop for a moment and just say it is never a good idea to try to force a husband and wife to disagree with each other—especially over something as personal as naming their own child?

So Zacharias asks for a writing tablet. The neighbors and relatives are certain he is going to side with them. He writes. They wait. He turns the tablet around for them all to see. Their eyes widen, perhaps a jaw or two drops. Because on that tablet they read: “His name is John.”

And that ends the discussion, because another surprise is coming: Zacharias can talk again—and he does, ignoring the crowd’s attitude about the name. His first words are praises to God.

Fear Came on Them

You know something this amazing (old Zacharias and Elizabeth having a baby), this crazy (naming the baby John?), and this surprising (Zacharias talking after a nine-month silence) was not going to be kept silent. They spread the word all over the place. But the reaction isn’t what you might initially think.

“Fear came on all who dwelt around them.” Why fear? Because they didn’t know what to make of all this. Because they knew God was behind it—but they didn’t know what He was planning with John. Because God had been silent for around 400 years, last interacting with the Jews through Malachi. They knew something important was happening, but they weren’t sure what it was.

But they told everyone they knew about it nonetheless. And everyone that heard it wondered what was going to happen with this child, what he would become, what God would do with him.

Then Luke adds an interesting detail: “the hand of the Lord was with him.” God cared for him, strengthened him, and protected him as he grew.

The Prophecy (Luke 1:67-80)

And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant—as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old—Salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; to show mercy toward our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham our father, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare his ways; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Zacharias Praises God and Prophesies about Jesus

Zacharias was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” which is a phrase Luke uses to describe someone who speaks miraculously with words or messages given by God.[27] In other words, Zacharias wasn’t making these words up out of thin air. He absolutely meant them, but they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

He praises God because “He has visited and redeemed His people” (KJV). While God had in times past visited and redeemed His people, it seems like Zacharias is using what is sometimes called “the prophetic perfect” or the “prophetic past tense.” In other words, he is stating something in past tense, even though it is still in the future, because of the certainty of it happening. It is so certain that he can speak of it as an already-accomplished event.

This phrase points to the life, work, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But Zacharias can praise God in this way because he knows the plan has finally been set into motion with the birth of John, the one chosen by God to be the forerunner for the Messiah.

“He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David.” Again, prophetic past tense. He’s looking past John to the One of real importance—one who was not from the house of Levi (as John was), but who was from the lineage of David.

And Zacharias sees this as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (v. 70) about salvation (v. 71), about God’s promise of mercy (v. 72), about God’s covenant (v. 72), and about the oath sworn to Abraham (v. 73).[28] He saw this as a promise of deliverance from fear (v. 74).[29] He saw this as instituting God’s plan to make men holy and righteous (v. 75).

In other words, Zacharias saw in this the work of Christ and of reality in His church.

Son, You’ve Got a Job to Do

Zacharias then looks at his son, John, and foretells the work he will accomplish. Most of these things match up well with what Gabriel foretold about John.

  • You will be called the prophet of the Highest (Gabriel said John would be “filled with the Spirit,” which means he would speak by inspiration—would be a prophet).
  • You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways (Gabriel said, “he [John] would go before Him [the Lord]” as the forerunner, Elijah).
    • This also is a reference to Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.
  • You will give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins (Gabriel said John would turn “many of the children of Israel…to the Lord their God”).
    • And of course, we see this carried out when John preaches a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.[30]
  • You will preach salvation through the tender mercy of our God, through which the Sunrise from on high has visited us (Gabriel said John would “turn… the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous [and] make ready a people prepared for the Lord”).
  • The One you preach will give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
    • John pointed people to righteous living,[31] and even more, pointed people to Jesus.[32]
  • The One you preach will guide our feet in the way of peace.

John’s Preparation

Three things are said of John in verse 80.

He grew.

The promise of a baby was amazing, but the promises about the baby wouldn’t take place until he grew up.

He grew strong in spirit.

It doesn’t say he grew strong in the Spirit, as of the Holy Spirit, but that he grew strong in spirit. That means he grew in confidence, in resilience, which made him the perfect candidate to call out the sins of the Pharisees in front of the people.[33] He had no fear when he preached. Some might even call him somewhat hard-headed or stubborn.

He was in the deserted places until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

These deserted places, or wilderness places, are most likely the areas near Jericho and the Dead Sea where the Essenes lived. It is surmised by many that after the death of Zacharias and Elizabeth (or perhaps even prior to it), John went to live with this eccentric sect (responsible for writing and collecting the Dead Sea Scrolls) who had separated themselves from the rest of the Jews. I find the evidence to be inconclusive, but interesting.[34]

What Does this Mean for Us Today?

“God is not slack concerning His promises as some men count slackness.”[35] It had been 400 years since God had said anything to the Jews. It had been 400 years since He had promises a messenger would come to prepare the way of the Lord. It had been 400 years since He had promised Elijah was coming—and He hadn’t forgotten. We want God to answer our prayers on our time, when we want it, how we want it. But God answers when He decides it is right. And God has promised a final judgment[36]—and He hasn’t forgotten. Let’s not ever start thinking that God has forgotten anything, or that He doesn’t care—because He does.

Pray with Confidence! Zacharias had been praying for who knows how long, praying that he and Elizabeth might have a child. But it seems that his prayers had, at some point, stopped being confident, because when Gabriel said the prayers were heard and going to be answered, Zacharias didn’t believe him. Through Jesus Christ, we have the right to come with boldness, with confidence,[37] knowing God will hear our prayers, and knowing that if we ask according to His will, He will answer them.[38]

God delivers us from fear so we can serve Him in holiness and righteousness. When we act on fear, we aren’t living holy, righteous lives. God didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of confidence, of love, and of a sound mind.[39]

[1] John 1:21.

[2] Matthew 16:13-14.

[3] Matthew 17:10.

[4] The word “Baptist” is not a translation of the Greek word, but a transliteration—meaning the translators decided to just take the Greek letters and turn them into English letters, without actually translating the word. The word literally means “dipper” or “immerser.”

[5] Matthew wrote to prove Jesus was the King, the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for. Mark’s fast-paced gospel account didn’t have space or time for background stories of what was (ultimately) a side character in the story. John gave some aspects of the Immerser which don’t appear in the other three gospels, but mainly to show (1) Jesus was the important one and (2) how the Immerser pointed the way to Jesus.

[6] This view was popularized by a German scholar named Emil Schurer. https://jimmyakin.com/2013/04/jesus-birth-and-when-herod-the-great-really-died.html (accessed 3/28/2023)

[7] Finegan, Jack, Handbook of Bible Chronology, p. 291.

[8] Daniel 2:44. The crazy interpretations of the fourth kingdom to somehow be a reconstituted Roman Empire, or the European Union are without logic, without common sense, and without biblical warrant. If it points to something after the original Roman Empire, then God doesn’t know how to count.

[9] NIV, NET, ESV, RSV

[10] KJV, NKJV, NASB

[11] 1 Chronicles 24 doesn’t make it clear which of the two sons of Aaron the specific subgroup were descended from. There were sixteen from Eleazar, and eight from Ithamar. Abijah was the eighth one listed.

[12] The passage given here seems to apply to all priests, not just the high priest.

[13] This may be complete coincidence, or perhaps Luke is hinting at a connection between Aaron as high priest and Zacharias as high priest.

[14] https://tovrose.substack.com/p/was-john-the-baptist-the-rightful-aaronic-high-priest-of-israel (Accessed 3/28/2023).

[15] This information comes from John Sanidopoulos, https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2014/09/was-zechariah-father-of-john-baptist.html (Accessed 3/28/2023)

[16] See specifically sections 5 and 23. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/infancyjames-roberts.html (Accessed 3/28/2023). Note: This writing is full of made-up events and doctrines, and is the original source for the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary—but the document was condemned as heretical in AD 405 by Pope Innocent I, and specifically decreed to be “avoided by all Catholics” by another pope less than 100 years later. See https://www.tertullian.org/decretum_eng.htm; http://bible-researcher.com/innocent.html (Accessed 3/28/2023).

[17] https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2014/09/was-zechariah-father-of-john-baptist.html (Accessed 3/28/2023).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Each piece of evidence presented could be dismissed as (1) coincidence, (2) appealing to uninspired men, and/or (3) assumptions. However, I personally find #8 to be compelling, especially when paired with #1 and #6.

[20] The Greek word is euangelizo—where we get the word evangelize.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Alford, Clarke, etc.

[23] Barnes, Coffman. As a side note, Coffman suggests this information probably came from Luke’s interview with Mary prior to his writing this Gospel account.

[24] Ruth 4:16-17.

[25] Luke 1:6

[26] Matthew Henry gives it as a suggestion, Alford and Coffman are both adamant about it.

[27] See this author’s The Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts (Charleston, AR: Cobb Publishing, 2015) for a more in-depth look at this fact.

[28] Genesis 12:1-5.

[29] Compare this with Hebrews 2:14-15.

[30] Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3.

[31] Luke 3:10-14.

[32] John 1:25-27; 3:27-30.

[33] Matthew 3, Luke 3.

[34] Encyclopedia Britannica even addresses the issue. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-John-the-Baptist/Possible-relationship-with-the-Essenes (Accessed 3/29/2023). As a side note, one recent Catholic writer, in his book, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, suggests Luke may have written his Gospel in part to present Jesus to the Essene community. https://www.catholic.com/audio/caf/jesus-and-the-dead-sea-scrolls-2 (Accessed 3/29/2023).

[35] 2 Peter 3:9.

[36] Acts 17:31; Matthew 25; etc.

[37] Hebrews 4:16.

[38] 1 John 5:14.

[39] 2 Timothy 1:7.

The Coming of the King

Sermon 2: The Coming of the King

Text: Mark 1:2-11 – As it is written in the prophets, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, which shall prepare your way before you.  The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!’”  John did immerse in the wilderness, and preach the immersion of repentance for the remission of sins.  And there went out to him all the land of Judea, and those of Jerusalem, and were all immersed by him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.  And John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a belt of leather around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey; and preached, saying, “There comes one mightier than I, after me, the laces of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I indeed have immersed you in water: but He shall immerse you in the Holy Spirit.

And it came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was immersed by John in the Jordan.  And immediately, coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending on Him.  And there came a voice from heaven, saying, “Thou art my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”

Introduction

Mark wrote to a Roman audience; an audience that grew up hearing the stories about various gods, hearing the legends about the children of the gods, and even tales about prophesies regarding these various supposed deities coming to earth.  But if they started reading the gospel that Mark wrote, they’d instantly be captivated by his statement that there is only one God (Mark 1:1 literally says that Jesus Christ is “Son of the God”).  And Mark follows that by quoting two prophecies that pointed to a theophany (appearance of deity on earth).

The Text, part 1 – The Prophecy (Mark 1:2-3)

(2a) As it is written in the prophets

With this statement, Mark subtly asserts the superiority of this prophecy to those supposed prophecies of Greek and Roman legends.  When “prophecies” appear in Greek and Roman myths, they’re almost always introduced in the same story where they are “fulfilled.”  That is to say, there are no examples of a “prophecy” being given in the name of Zeus or Hermes or whoever that was written down and then fulfilled at a later period of time.  All the “prophecies” appear for the first time in the stories that they supposedly point to.

Meanwhile, Mark starts off with “As it is written in the prophets…”  This bold statement invites his readers to do some research and look at the fact that these prophecies have been on record, foretelling a theophany, for hundreds of years!  This is a massive distinction made between the gods of Rome and the God of heaven whose Son is the subject of this short book.

Some translations follow a less-trustworthy Greek text and have the phrase “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,” but the first quotation isn’t from Isaiah—it’s from Malachi.

(2b) Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, which shall prepare the way before You

If one of the Roman readers of this book were to take Mark’s challenge and look for this prophecy, he’d find it in the book of Malachi, written about 450-500 years before Mark wrote his book.  While this prophecy foretells the work of John the Immerser (Jesus quotes it as such in Matthew 11:10 and Luke 7:27), its primary focus is on the coming (theophany) of the Lord.  Malachi 3:1 says “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before ME.”  If you continue reading that verse, you’ll see that it was spoken by the Lord (Jehovah).

Now, Mark knew that the majority of his original readers wouldn’t take the time to look up the original prophecies, and so—as the narrator—he only brings up three in his entire book, two of which are right here.  There are other Old Testament prophecies mentioned, but they are mentioned by Jesus, and Mark is simply quoting Him.

In the ancient times, when a king was going to visit a city, he would first send a messenger, a herald, first to announce his coming so that the people could be prepared.  Oftentimes this would be done months—sometimes over a year—in advance of his arrival.  The cities that received an arrival of the king were considered to be specially favored, because the king didn’t make trips to all the cities.  It was an incredible honor to have the king visit your city.

When it was announced that the king was coming, the people would work hard to beautify their city.  They would many times build new buildings, would repair older ones, painting them, repair the city streets, and anything else they could think of to make a good impression for the royalty that was blessing them with his presence.  It was the job of the messenger, the herald, to encourage the people to be ready.  He would point out the things that needed to be fixed in the city, and would give suggestions on how to best be prepared to welcome the king.

Since this was true of people preparing to meet a physical king, how much more should they be preparing when it is the God of heaven whose coming is being announced?  Since the great kings of the earth would announce their arrival months in advance, how much greater is the King whose coming was announced hundreds of years in advance?

(3a) The voice of one crying in the wilderness

This is an interesting contrast with the historical background.  A messenger would go into cities to announce a future visit of the king, but this messenger of prophecy would make his announcement in the “wilderness.”  This was another clue to the original readers that there was something different about this theophany, about this arrival of a monarch.

Verse 3 is a quotation from Isaiah 40:3.

(3b) Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight

In addition to beautifying the buildings and the city, prior to the arrival of the king, the inhabitants of the city would do road work.  They would smooth out bumpy roads, straighten out twisting roads, and not just inside the city.  They would work on the path to their city gates for several miles outside their town, just so the king’s journey to their city would be a pleasant one.

Of course, Mark is about to drop a figurative bomb on his readers when he tells them that the preparation for this king has nothing to do with fixing roads and beautifying buildings.

The Text, part 2 – The Messenger (Mark 1:4-6)

Mark doesn’t dwell much on John the immerser—John is only a part of about 30 verses (less than 5% of the book of Mark).  The messenger was an envoy of the king, but everyone knew that while he was an important person, he was nothing compared to the one whose coming he announced.

(4) John did immerse in the wilderness, and did preach the immersion of repentance for the remission of sins.

Mark began this section with the words “As it is written in the prophets…” or “Like it was written in the prophets…” and then gives the quotations.  But verse 4 is a continuation of that phrase.  “Like it was written in the prophets…John did immerse in the wilderness, and preach…”  Mark’s point in this verse is to show (1) the person—the messenger, John—who was foretold, (2) the place—the wilderness—that was foretold, and (3) the preparation—immersion of repentance for the remission of sins—that was foretold.

The preparation for the arrival of the great King—God in the flesh—didn’t involve fixing the streets or building new buildings.  It involved preparation of the people.  The Roman readers would have been perplexed by this.  “What kind of king seeks moral cleansing, spiritual betterment prior to His arrival instead of physical improvements?”

The work of the messenger, John, was to get the people to think about their spiritual condition, believing in the coming of the King, the Messiah, repenting, and being immersed for the remission of sins.  This is how the “way of the Lord” was being prepared.  This is how His “paths” were being made straight.  When the King arrived, He preached the same thing, and commanded that the same thing continue to be preached even after He left (Luke 24:47, Mark 16:15-16, Acts 2:38, etc.).

Because John’s work was one of spiritual preparation, his immersion was one with spiritual effects when coupled with repentance.  It had the same effect as the baptism commanded by the King (Jesus Christ), through Peter, on the Day of Pentecost three years later—the remission (removal, forgiveness) of sins.

(5) And there went out to him all the land of Judea, and those of Jerusalem, and were all immersed by him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.

The ancient heralds would go to the city gates or to public place inside the city to make their announcement, and all the people would come to hear it.  John made his announcement in the wilderness, but still all the people came to hear it.  He was (as seen in verse 7) announcing the coming of the King, and the people who believed him wanted to make themselves right in anticipation of His arrival.

(6) John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a belt of leather around his waist; and he ate locusts and wild honey.

Mark adds this information about the appearance and diet of John for a very important reason.  The heralds of kings in the ancient days would be clothed in fine clothing, expensive clothing, and would expect gifts of clothing from the people.  They also expected, as emissaries of the king, to be “wined and dined,” eating the best food that the city had to offer (without paying for it, of course).  Not all were like that, for certain, but it was common for the heralds of kings to take advantage of the people in the city, with the implication “I’d hate to have to tell the king you were uncooperative…”

In stark contrast to these well-dressed and well-fed men, John came dressed in camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist.  And he didn’t feast on the best the people had to offer—his diet consisted of things he could get for himself, provided by nature.

The thoughtful Roman reader couldn’t help but be struck by the imagery.  What kind of king sends his messenger dressed in poor man’s clothing and eating locusts?  But at the same time, they would have also had a level of admiration for the king whose messenger refused to use his position to line his own pockets and fill his own stomach.

The Text, part 3 – The Announcement (Mark 1:7-8)

The prophecies quoted by Mark for his readers started with the messenger, and Mark identified the messenger.  The prophecy then spoke of the preparation, and Mark described the preparation.  The prophecy spoke of the place where this work was to be done, and Mark showed the location.  The prophecy then gave the announcement—the Lord is coming!

(7) And he preached, saying “There comes one mightier than I after me, the laces of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”

This is John being the herald, the messenger, announcing the coming of the King.  The people listening to his message didn’t know exactly who this King was yet (they knew He was the Messiah, but they didn’t know it was Jesus yet), but Mark’s readers were given the answer at the very beginning: Jesus Christ, Son of the God.

As important as the herald was, and as much respect as he was to be given, he was nothing compared to the King which would follow.  This is the imagery that Mark, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is presenting to his readers.  John, the messenger of the King who is the Son of the one and only God, should have been—by worldly standards—the most important herald in the history of mankind (and Jesus even said there was no man greater than John, Matthew 11:11).  But even the greatest messenger in the history of the world wasn’t worthy to touch the feet to untie the shoes of the King he was announcing.

How powerful and mighty must this King be!

(8) “I indeed have immersed you in water, but He shall immerse you in the Holy Spirit.”

This is a continuation of the announcement of the coming King and a description of His greatness and power.  John had immersed people in water—that common item that covers the majority of the globe.  And it wasn’t even pristine water, it was the not-exactly-clean water of the Jordan River, which was inferior to the rivers in Syria to the north (2 Kings 5:12).  The point is that John immersed people in a common element, but that the King who would come had the power to immerse people in power from heaven.  What an incredible contrast!

While John’s listeners were familiar with the Holy Spirit, Mark’s original readers probably weren’t.  And so it comes as no surprise that just a few verses later, Mark shows the source of the Spirit: God Himself!

The Text, part 4 – The King Arrives (Mark 1:9-11)

(9) And it came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was immersed by John in the Jordan River.

The reaction of the readers must have been much like the reaction of Nathanael, who said, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).  That is, if they’d even heard of Nazareth.  They had probably heard of Galilee, and that would probably have elicited a similar reaction.  Galilee was an insignificant area, so far as the Romans were concerned.

But they’ve already been told that Jesus is the Anointed One, son of the God (1:1), they’ve been shown the prophecy about the messenger announcing the arrival of this Lord (1:2-3), and they’ve read his might and power described (1:7-8).  So their expectations were probably something completely different from what happens in this verse.  It’s no surprise, since that’s what happened with the Jews as well.  They expected a Messiah much different than the one that God sent.

John described the coming King as someone who was so mighty that He had the powers of heaven at His command (will immerse you with the Holy Spirit), and so regal that John wasn’t even worthy to untie this King’s shoes.  The expectation, then, would be someone who thought of themselves as above everyone else, who couldn’t be bothered with the common person.  Yet here comes Jesus, going out into the wilderness, coming to the same person for baptism, going down into the same dirty, common waters of the Jordan River, allowing the one who wasn’t worthy to untie His shoes to immerse Him like he had done so many others.

This verse reveals Jesus as a King who is humble, not like the kings of this world.

(10) And immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opened and the Spirit like a dove descending on Him.

Take a moment to picture this scene in your mind.  Jesus has come to be immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John.  Jesus steps into the water and stands next to the Immerser.  John then takes hold of Jesus, and plunges Him beneath the water’s surface before lifting Him back up.  And at that moment, the heavens open up.  Do you see the clouds parting in the sky?  Do you see a bright ray of sunlight shining down towards our Lord?  Don’t just read over this verse and miss the incredible scene that took place, because this is part of the proof of what Mark stated in the first verse: Jesus Christ, Son of the God.

Jesus, the King, was described as the one who would have the power over the Holy Spirit (baptizing people in the Holy Spirit—verse 8).  Now, in this verse, it is shown that the Holy Spirit comes from heaven—from God—and resides with Jesus.  Some view this event to be the moment when Jesus is anointed as King.

(11) And there came a voice from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

Here is the public proclamation of Jesus as Son of the God.  The heavens have opened, the Spirit has descended, and now the voice from heaven itself—the realm of the one true God—speaks, announcing that Jesus of Nazareth is His Son.

Mark concludes the opening section of his account of the good news of Jesus by showing that Jesus is the Son of God, just like he stated in the first verse.

Application

The Old Testament was Written for our Learning.

If you look through the book of Acts, you’ll see that the apostles used the Old Testament to prove that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God.  While we do not live under the Old Testament (nor did the apostles after the Day of Pentecost), we can increase our faith and learn more about God by studying those writings.  Even though Mark doesn’t spend a lot of time bringing up the Old Testament prophecies, he does show that he is familiar with them, and that they can still be used to prove the truth of Jesus as the Christ.

The Messenger of God Cannot be Focused on Himself.

There was no one greater than John the Immerser, according to Jesus Christ, but John didn’t let that status, as the messenger of the King, go to his head.  He didn’t wear fancy clothes when he proclaimed his message—the Pharisees did, but John didn’t.  He was dressed in common clothing.  He didn’t try to abuse his role and make demands of people, catering to his whims and opinions.  Instead, the only demands he made of people were those that involved their spiritual condition (Luke records these in greater detail).  The ones who were trying to run others’ lives, he called a “generation of vipers” (Matthew 3:7).  Likewise, if we are to truly be God’s messengers, we need to make sure we focus on making people spiritually prepared for the Lord’s coming.  Making an issue, demanding that someone cater to your opinion, is putting the focus on you and not on God.

Jesus was Humble, We must be Humble.

There are baptized believers who are arrogant instead of humble.  Sometimes it is seen in how they talk about those in denominations, as though they are so much smarter than those denominationalists because of a proper understanding of baptism—as though the denominationalists are intentionally keeping themselves out of heaven.  Other times it is seen in how they treat other Christians, specifically those who are struggling spiritually, as though they never have any spiritual struggles.  Jesus came to save the lost and to give us an example of the attitude we are to have towards others—brethren and non-brethren alike.  Jesus lived a life of humility, of humble service, not using His status as King to make people bow down to His every whim, but showing them the right way to live.  We need to follow that same example.

Baptism Involves being able to “come up out of the water.”

The largest religious denomination in the world teaches that sprinkling water on someone is considered baptism.  Others teach that pouring water on someone’s head constitutes baptism.  But when Jesus was baptized, He “came up out of the water” (Mark 1:10).  That means He first had to be “in” the water.  You can’t “come out of the water” after having some sprinkled on you.  You can’t “come out of the water” after having some poured on you.  But you have no choice but to “come out of the water” after you’ve been immersed in it.  Baptism is immersion.

Invitation

The King of kings, the Son of the one true God of heaven, did come to the earth to visit mankind.  When He did, He lived a life of perfect service and obedience to the Father, giving us an example to follow.  He gave those who believed in Him and wanted to be saved a very simple command: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, for the remission of sins.”

Why don’t you come follow the King now?

-Bradley S. Cobb