The Prophecies Made About You (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 15)

NOTE: “Refiner’s Fire” is a mini-series within my overall series on the gospel of Matthew. To start from the beginning, go here and look for the Refiner’s Fire section at the bottom.


Several decades in the future, the apostle Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy:

Timothy, my son, I am giving you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies previously made about you, so that by them you may strongly engage in battle, having faith and a good conscience. (1 Timothy 1:18–19a)

Like Timothy, John had been given prophecies to illuminate his path in life. One had been given by the angel Gabriel when John’s birth was announced; the other was spoken by his father Zechariah through the Holy Spirit at the moment that Zechariah’s voice returned.

“He will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,” Gabriel had said.

And he will go before Him
in the spirit and power of Elijah,
to turn the hearts of fathers
to their children,
and the disobedient
to the understanding of the righteous,
to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.
(Luke 1:16–17)

Zechariah had addressed his prophecy directly to his newborn son:

And child, you will be called
a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord
to prepare His ways,
to give His people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins.
Because of our God’s merciful compassion,
the Dawn from on high will visit us
to shine on those who live in darkness
and the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
(Luke 1:76–79)

I have to imagine John in the wilderness mulling over these words about himself. I have to imagine him weighing their meaning—speculating about the future and considering both what was in store for him and what would be required of him.

In my own life I have experienced the slow growth of a strong sense of purpose and calling, and in considering it I vary between disbelief and pride; wonder and panic. Perhaps you can relate. Everyone experiences the hand of the Potter in life, but once in a while we get a glimpse of the specs for the finished product—it’s both a lifegiving and a terrifying thing.

Living out in the desert, it seems John had plenty of time and space to consider these questions, to bathe them in prayer, and to draw near to the God who had called him. And he needed it. The calling on his life was not a small one.

I believe deeply in God’s power and desire to use “ordinary” people in “ordinary” roles to do the work of the kingdom—in fact, I think that is how God generally prefers to work—but John’s calling was not ordinary in any sense of the word.

When he finally did reappear in public, he confidently proclaimed himself to be standing at the cusp of kingdom come. Without blushing, he was willing to declare himself the fulfillment of several keystone prophecies for the nation and the world.

Even for a man whose birth was heralded by an angel and accompanied by powerful prophecies, convictions such as those that John held about himself and his role in history could not have formed overnight. He arrived at them through years of living an isolated, self-denying existence in the wilderness, separated from the comforts and pleasures of ordinary people. He came to them through prayer, through meditation and study of the Scriptures, and through direct divine revelation, from God’s spirit to his spirit. He was not only full of the Holy Spirit, he believed he was full of the Holy Spirit—a condition that was not common to God’s people at the time, not shared, and not without exceptionally high demands on John and his daily experience of life.

In other words, John arrived at conviction and identity in the most exacting way anyone can: he walked away from every shred of human security, threw his entire life on God, and kept pressing deeper in every practical, lived-out detail of his day-to-day existence. And what he learned by doing this was nothing short of astonishing.

A Forerunner with a Forerunner

About four hundred years before John was born, the prophet Malachi recorded a promise from God:

Look, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome Day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:5–6)

This, of course, is what Gabriel was referencing when he said that John would “come in the spirit and power of Elijah” to prepare the God’s people for the return of Yahweh.

In the prophetic history of Israel, only Moses stood out as more symbolically significant than Elijah. Elijah did not write or deliver long prophetic messages like Isaiah or Jeremiah did; instead, he spoke directly to kings and rulers, usually rebuking them and declaring God’s judgment on their sins. He majored in signs and wonders, even raising the dead. He shared some of John’s ascetic character, being apparently unmarried and celibate and spending lengthy amounts of time in the wilderness; he was described, like John, as wearing a hairy garment with a leather belt around his waist.

While Isaiah seems to have been comfortable in the royal courts, and prophets like Haggai and Malachi rubbed shoulders with governors and priests, Elijah lived like an exile from polite society. He would have struck people in much the same way John the Baptist later did.

In Elijah’s day, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had become deeply corrupt and paganized, largely due to the influence of King Ahab and his Sidonian wife Jezebel. The people as a whole had apostacized in such large numbers that Elijah once complained to the Lord in despair that he was the only faithful Israelite left in the nation. And although God was quick to correct him, his perception that he was alone does indicate how badly his people had fallen from faithfulness.

Elijah was best known for provoking a showdown with Jezebel’s priests of Baal, in which he called fire down from heaven while the people shouted, “The LORD is God!” And his ministry marked a significant shift in the history of Israel. In Elijah’s time, judgment came on the house on Ahab. The king was killed in battle, Jezebel was thrown to her death by her own servants from an upper-story window, and a new king from a new dynasty came to power. Elijah lived during the changing of the guard and was actively involved in it. He saw out the old and ushered in the new by pronouncing judgment on Ahab and personally declaring God’s choice of a new king.

But most significantly of all, Elijah encountered God as few human beings have done before or since. As I’ve already mentioned, on a mountain in the Negev after his cataclysmic showdown with the prophets of Baal, he heard God as a “still, small voice”—one of the most profound self-disclosures in the history of God and humanity.

Elijah had firsthand, direct experience of the supernatural presence of God. His entire life spoke of Holy Spirit fire, consecration, and judgment; his words and his life alike called his people to repentance and return. When the time came for his death, the writer of Kings tells us that Elijah did not die. Instead, he went out into the wilderness where he had encountered God so many times before and was caught up to heaven in a chariot of fire.

The memory of all these past events and personalities were evoked by the angel’s words to Zechariah that his soon-to-be-conceived son would come “in the spirit and power of Elijah” to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

And it was true: in a spiritual sense, John looked just like Elijah. The two men shared a mission to call God’s people away from idols and back to the worship of Yahweh, and it seems they shared a personality as well. Most of all, they shared the experience of a deeply personal revelation of God.

John was aware of all of this. Because of Malachi, the people in his day were expecting Elijah to return in some way. John expected that too—and he believed that on some level, he was him.

But Malachi’s Elijah prophecy was not the only expectation John believed he had personally been born to fulfill.

To be continued …


This is Part 173 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash




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