What John Believed: The Return of the King (Refiner’s Fire Pt 8)

NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. It deals with the story of John the Baptist as a vehicle for navigating our own struggles with doubt, disappointment, and crisis of faith. I’m working on it daily and will release the whole thing as a book once it’s done.

What you see on the blog is a work-in-progress. It may make the most sense if you start from the beginning, so if you wish to read it that way, I’d recommend visiting the gospel of Matthew index page and looking for the Refiner’s Fire section. Please note the central passage of Scripture at issue is Matthew 11:1-19.


Among the Old Testament books of prophecy, none quite compares to Isaiah. Sometimes called “the prince of prophets,” Isaiah functioned as the chief prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah during the reigns of Uzziah (a decent king), Hezekiah (a righteous one), and Manasseh—probably the worst of all the southern kings. (He practiced child sacrifice and is traditionally believed to have ordered Isaiah’s death by sawing in half.)

Approximately one hundred years before Babylon carried the princes and people of Judah away into exile, Isaiah prophesied Babylon’s rise as an empire, the judgment of God that would come upon apostate Israel through it, the return of the exiles to the land, and ultimately, the incredible restoration to come in the distant future.

Although Israel had gone into exile for their sins, God said, one day he would redeem them from the power of sin, the curse of the law, and their human enemies, bringing them out of captivity in Babylon just as he had brought their forefathers out of captivity to Egypt centuries earlier. And when that happened, God himself would return to dwell gloriously in their midst and establish his own kingdom among them.

In chapters 40–55 of Isaiah, God describes this glorious return, climaxing in Isaiah 52 with the proclamation that “God reigns”—that is, God’s kingdom has come:

“Wake up, wake up;
put on your strength, Zion!
Put on your beautiful garments,
Jerusalem, the Holy City!
For the uncircumcised and the unclean
will no longer enter you.
Stand up, shake the dust off yourself!
Take your seat, Jerusalem.
Remove the bonds from your neck,
captive Daughter Zion.”

For this is what the Lord says:
“You were sold for nothing,
and you will be redeemed without silver.”

For this is what the Lord God says:
“At first My people went down to Egypt to live there,
then Assyria oppressed them without cause.
So now what have I here”—
this is the Lord’s declaration—
“that My people are taken away for nothing?
Its rulers wail”—
this is the Lord’s declaration—
“and My name is continually blasphemed all day long.

Therefore My people will know My name;
therefore they will know on that day
that I am He who says:
Here I am.”

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of the herald,
who proclaims peace,
who brings news of good things,
who proclaims salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
The voices of your watchmen—
they lift up their voices,
shouting for joy together;
for every eye will see
when the Lord returns to Zion.
(Isaiah 52:1–8, my emphasis)

Other prophets also emphasized these themes of redemption, deliverance, the return of God to dwell with his people, and the establishment of his kingdom on earth. Using an image of resurrection to represent this future day when God would dramatically act on behalf of his people, Ezekiel wrote:

This is what the Lord God says: I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them, My people, and lead you into the land of Israel. You will know that I am Yahweh, My people, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put My Spirit in you, and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I am Yahweh. I have spoken, and I will do it.” This is the declaration of the Lord.

I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. I will establish and multiply them and will set My sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be My people. (Ezekiel 37:12–13, 26–27)

Zephaniah wrote about this era of deliverance with special emphasis on God’s kingship and presence. Like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, he also connected this new era of redemption to the forgiveness of Israel’s sins and their freedom, at long last, from the curse:

Sing for joy, Daughter Zion;
shout loudly, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
Daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has removed your punishment;
He has turned back your enemy.
The King of Israel, Yahweh, is among you;
you need no longer fear harm.

On that day it will be said to Jerusalem:
“Do not fear;
Zion, do not let your hands grow weak.
Yahweh your God is among you,
a warrior who saves.
He will rejoice over you with gladness.
He will bring you quietness with His love.
He will delight in you with shouts of joy.”
(Zephaniah 3:14–17)

All of these prophets also made it clear that when God acted in this way—forgiving his people, redeeming them from slavery or captivity, delivering them from their enemies, restoring them to their land, and making a new covenant with them in which he would come to dwell among them and reign as king—it would mean the beginning of a new age: an unprecedented era of peace, prosperity, and favor.

The impact of this era would be so wide-reaching that it would draw the nations of the world to Israel’s God. As some commentators have pointed out, the idea of a “Messiah” was not entirely clear in the Hebrew Scriptures, but there was no question that God had promised a “Messianic age.”

The prophet Micah described this coming era well:

In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be established
at the top of the mountains
and will be raised above the hills.
Peoples will stream to it,
and many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us about His ways
so we may walk in His paths.”
For instruction will go out of Zion
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He will settle disputes among many peoples
and provide arbitration for strong nations
that are far away.
They will beat their swords into plows,
and their spears into pruning knives.
Nation will not take up the sword against nation,
and they will never again train for war.
But each man will sit under his grapevine
and under his fig tree
with no one to frighten him.
For the mouth of the Lord of Hosts
has promised this.
Though all the peoples each walk
in the name of their gods,
we will walk in the name of Yahweh our God
forever and ever.

On that day—
this is the Lord’s declaration—
I will assemble the lame
and gather the scattered,
those I have injured.

I will make the lame into a remnant,
those far removed into a strong nation.
Then the Lord will rule over them in Mount Zion
from this time on and forever.
And you, watchtower for the flock,
fortified hill of Daughter Zion,
the former rule will come to you,
sovereignty will come to Daughter Jerusalem.
(Micah 4:1–8)

In this passage from Micah, as in Zephaniah 3 and Isaiah 52, it is God who will one day reign in Israel. The King whose return is so desperately needed isn’t a human king at all, but Yahweh, the Lord of Hosts.

From our vantage point so many years later, it’s important to remember that the Jewish people might have expected a human saviour to come along at some point, but mostly, they expected God to act on their behalf just as he had done when they came out of Egypt.

It was, after all, God they had sinned against. Only God could release them from their sins and bring them truly home again.

In a passage heavily with allusions to the exodus from Egypt, Isaiah wrote:

This is what the Lord says—
who makes a way in the sea,
and a path through surging waters,
who brings out the chariot and horse,
the army and the mighty one together
(they lie down, they do not rise again;
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick)—
“Do not remember the past events,
pay no attention to things of old.
Look, I am about to do something new;
even now it is coming. Do you not see it?
Indeed, I will make a way in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert.
The animals of the field will honor Me,
jackals and ostriches,
because I provide water in the wilderness,
and rivers in the desert,
to give drink to My chosen people.
The people I formed for Myself
will declare My praise …

“It is I who sweep away your transgressions
for My own sake
and remember your sins no more.”
(Isaiah 43:1–21, 25)

As we’ve already noted, the idea of a human “Messiah” is not crystal clear in the Old Testament. In fact, the whole “Messiah” concept was loose enough that some Jewish thinkers didn’t necessarily expect a Messiah at all.

But they did expect a “messianic age,” or a coming golden era when God would renew the covenant, return to the temple, and deliver Israel from their enemies.

In post-Babylonian Jewish thought, there was a strong expectation that their God, Yahweh, would act in history to release them from the power of the curse and therefore the power of their political enemies. As N.T. Wright has ably demonstrated, this action on God’s part would also constitute the national “forgiveness of sins.”

Nevertheless, another element of the ancient prophesies did clearly point to a person who would take center stage as the kingdom of God was being established in and through Israel. This person would be an anointed king, a figure both priestly and kingly, from the house of David. He was sometimes called “Messiah ben David” (Messiah, the Son of David).

Originally, the Messiah wasn’t necessarily expected to cause the era of deliverance and redemption—rather, many felt that his coming would be a sign that God had done as he promised and the Messianic Age had truly arrived.

Either way, Israel’s hopes soon began to revolve around this figure and the era he would signal. The return of the King Yahweh would also mean the return of King David—and the one would carry out the will of the Other.


This is Part 166 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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ALSO: I am deeply grateful to everyone who has taken time to write to me over the past several years. Unfortunately, due to life constraints, I am no longer able to read or respond to email from readers. I thank you for your thoughts and please know that I am praying for you. Comments on the blog, however, are welcome.


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One response to “What John Believed: The Return of the King (Refiner’s Fire Pt 8)”

  1. […] Part 166: What John Believed: The Return of the King (Refiner’s Fire Pt 8) (Matthew 11:1-19) […]

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