HOUSMAIL HM#056 - WHAT SHALL I CRY? (Isaiah 40:3-8) 28 April 2000 __________________________________________________________________________
When the Jews challenged John the Baptist to declare himself, (John 1;19) they had in mind specific persons mentioned by the Old Testament prophets.
A valid question indeed! Anyone with a little Jewish history, and some elementary arithmetic, can do the calculations from the book of Daniel which will arrive at that very year when John began to preach, as the time prophesied for the appearance of the Messiah. (Daniel 9:24-27) But of course, as a member of the tribe of Levi, John was not, and never could be, the Messiah.
The prophet Malachi had foretold the appearance of “Elijah the prophet”. (Malachi 4:5) The Jews were expecting the prophet Elijah to appear in person. However we have John’s “birth record”, which makes it quite obvious that John was not Elijah, either raised from the dead, or returned from Heaven. So it was quite valid for him to reject that identity for himself. In any case the Jews had misunderstood the prophecy. The prophet spoken of by Malachi, was not to be Elijah in person, but one who came in the same Spirit and Power as Elijah. (Luke 1:16-17) So, there is no contradiction between John’s rejection, and the clear statement from Jesus that John was the one to whom the prophecy referred. (Matt 11:14)
In passing, although I cannot prove this, I speculate that John probably did know about that prophecy from the lips of his own father, (Zechariah, in Luke 1:17) but was carefully sidestepping the inevitable and quite pointless theological debate about whether Malachi meant Elijah in person, or someone else in the same spirit and power. After all, that question is still with us in this last year of the 20th century! John had something much more important to say.
Moses had foretold that God would raise up prophets through whom He would continue to speak to Israel, after the death of Moses. (Deut 18:15-18) Down through the centuries, there had been many such prophets. However the Jews of John’s day, understood Moses to be referring to a particular prophet of the “end times”, who they referred to as “that prophet”. And John was not that prophet.
A VOICE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS
John specifically rejected all claim to be any of those other three Biblical personalities listed above. Instead he claimed for himself the role described in Isaiah 40:3-8.
He was, he said, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”. (John 1:23) His calling was to “make straight the way of the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah said”. And his only “credentials” were a camel’s hair coat, a leather belt, (2 Kings 1:8, Mark 1:8) and his repetition of the message found in Isaiah’s prophecy!
But what a message! The Messiah was about to appear on the scene. In order to be ready for that, everyone needed to hear John’s preliminary call to repentance, which would be repeated, and enlarged, and reinforced, by the Messiah Himself, as a non-negotiable element of the Good News about the Kingdom of God.
However John only pointed us to Isaiah, without completing the quotation. For the rest of the message we shall have to read Isaiah for ourselves. That is as it should be. Jesus also points us to the Old Testament to leave us with the task of confirming His identity for ourselves. That is where we shall hear for ourselves the words from God, by which the Father reveals to each of us personally, just as he did to Peter, the meaning and truth of the identity of Jesus as “Son of man”, “Messiah”, and “Son of God”. (Matt 16:13-18)
So what was this message designed to “prepare the way of the Lord”? And why was it so specially suited for that purpose?
“A voice says, "Cry!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.” (Isaiah 1:6-8)
John’s message comes to us from the perspective of the clear teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures, that when men die, no part of the human consciousness survives the death of the body. The dead are described as “asleep in the dust of the earth”, (Dan 12:2) and unconscious. (Psalms 6:5; Eccl 9:5)
John’s message prepares the way for Jesus, by giving us a powerful reminder of our mortality! We are not immortal! We do not have “immortal souls”! The Bible clearly states that immortality is not inherent in men, but CONDITIONAL, and granted only at the Resurrection, to those who seek it by patient continuance in well doing. (Rom 8:6-10; 1 Cor 15:51-55)
John’s “cry from the wilderness” is that we are no different to the grass of the field. We are here only for this short life of ours. Today is the day of salvation. Beyond this mortal life, there will never be another opportunity to prepare for eternal life. Now is the time to listen to the word of God, believe it, and act on what we believe! If we do not repent now; if we do not bring forth fruits that befit repentance; our end will be like that of useless trees culled from an orchard, and burned with fire. (Luke 3:8-9)
And if THAT happens to us ..... then just like the grass, we will be gone for ever! A powerful “incentive” indeed, to think long and hard, about our standing before God.
THAT is the message which John spoke to “prepare the way of the Lord”! __________________________________________________________________________
But John was no mere “prophet of doom”, with no answers for the problem he confronted us with. He did have an answer! There was another about to arrive on the scene, far mightier than John, (Matt 3:11) who John said he came to reveal to Israel. He announced Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”; and as “the Son of God”. (John 1:29-34) He pointed Jesus out to two of his disciples, who left immediately to follow Jesus, knowing that they had found “the Messiah”. (John 1:41)
Those three titles identify Jesus for who he is. They invest Him with authority to speak for God. They establish His right to the throne over the Kingdom of God. They point to His sacrificial death which has won Him authority to pardon our sins. And they contain the Good News which has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Tim 2:10)
Peter quotes from that same passage from Isaiah, which John the Baptist used to prepare the way for Jesus.
Peter uses it to identify the “word of the Lord which abides for ever” as the Good News preached by Jesus. (1 Peter 1:23-25)
When we are able to join with Peter in saying to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God”, (John 6:68) we have found the secret of immortality! And we are on the threshold of becoming heirs of the Kingdom of God!