The Messenger of Malachi (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 16)

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.


Maybe even more than his connection with Elijah, John understood himself to be the messenger of Malachi and Isaiah. In the same prophetic work that includes the “return of Elijah” prophecy, Malachi wrote:

“See, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to His temple, the Messenger of the covenant you desire—see, He is coming,” says the LORD of Hosts. (Malachi 3:1)

As is usual in the prophetic passages, the identity of Malachi’s messenger is not clear—nor is it entirely certain if this prophecy has one “messenger” in mind or two. (For that matter, it’s not entirely clear whether this is a “return of Yahweh” prophecy or a “coming Messiah” prophecy—or both.) Nor does Malachi explicitly connect the messenger of this prophecy with his later prophecy of Elijah’s return. If we only had Malachi’s prophecy to foretell the coming of a messenger before the Messiah, we might miss it. Thankfully, Isaiah also speaks—extensively—about a messenger to precede the return of Yahweh:

“Comfort, comfort My people,” says your God.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
And announce to her that her time of forced labor is over,
Her iniquity has been pardoned,
And she has received from the LORD’s hand
Double for all her sins.”

A voice of one crying out:
Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness;
Make a straight highway for our God in the desert.
Every valley will be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill will be leveled;
The uneven ground will become smooth
And the rough places, a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will appear,
And all humanity together will see it,
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
(Isaiah 40:1–5)

This passage more than any other lies at the heart of John’s self-perception. When the Pharisees confronted him in John 1, they asked whether he was Elijah or another Old Testament prophet, supernaturally returned to the earth. John answered, “I am not.” But when they continued to press him about his identity, he gave Isaiah 40 as his answer:

He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord—just as Isaiah the prophet said.” (John 1:23)

John’s confident confession of his identity declared his beliefs about God, himself, and the times he lived in. He believed, in keeping with Isaiah 40:1–2, that the time for forgiveness of sins had come. That was the basis of his baptism “for the forgiveness of sins”: somehow out there in the wilderness, he had come to know that God was now ending the rule of the curse and breaking the power of sin over his people by offering them forgiveness and restoration. He believed that his own existence and unique role in history had been foretold by Israel’s greatest prophet hundreds of years before, and he believed that the Lord Yahweh himself was coming after him.

Furthermore, in some sense he believed the coming of Yahweh would be accomplished in and through the Messiah, whom he viewed as embodying God in some way, or at least as embodying God’s purposes; for in one breath he could say he had come to “prepare the way of Yahweh” and in the next, “I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of him.” John saw himself as a messenger preparing the way for the Messenger; as the herald of a king, who was himself the herald—or embodiment—of Yahweh.

What John believed about himself is staggering to consider. And short of his being delusional, it’s easy to see why it might take years of spiritual experience in a desert to make a man humble enough and clearsighted enough to accept such a calling and identity.

While delusion can accept the idea of personally being the second coming of one of the greatest men in history and the fulfillment of hundreds of years of prophecy, pride can’t. Pride is too attached to control and self-determination. It takes a profound humility to surrender to a calling and identity like the one John carried. If you have ever wrestled with the calling of God on your own life, you know this: God’s call can’t be controlled or shaped according to our own preferences. In the end, it can only be submitted to.

John submitted to his. However those years in the desert played out, from the moment he reappeared in society as an adult of about thirty years of age, John was like a man on fire. He ate locusts and wild honey; he dressed in camel skin. He was full of zeal and the Holy Spirit. He was a living reproach to the cultured refinement of the Herods and to those of his own Jewish people who valued their own comfort and worldly prosperity above the word of the Lord. When he called the religious leaders of his day “a brood of vipers” and thundered out, “Don’t say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for God is able to raise up children of Abraham from these stones,” everyone could feel in their bones the authority behind his words.

Releasing the Word of the Lord
When John reentered society as an adult, he announced that the kingdom of God was about to arrive and commanded everyone within earshot to repent and be baptized in recognition of this fact. He drew enormous crowds to the Jordan River, where he and his disciples baptized anyone who desired it and stirred up a lot of debate and trouble among the religious leaders of the time. Most people believed he was a prophet, although the religious establishment never officially got behind him or his message. The movement he started can fairly be called a revival.

John had a simple and arresting message:

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the place of his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones! Even now the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees! Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but the One who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove His sandals. He Himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing shovel is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn. But the chaff He will burn up with fire that never goes out.” (Matthew 3:7–12)

Later in Matthew 3, we’re told that when Jesus arrived on the scene, he requested baptism from John. John initially refused, identifying Jesus as the one he had been preaching about. But Jesus coaxed him into allowing it—and the act led to a dramatic experience for them both.

After Jesus was baptized, He went up immediately from the water. The heavens suddenly opened for Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on Him. And there came a voice from heaven:

This is My beloved Son.
I take delight in Him!
(Matthew 3:16–17)

For John, the event was even more significant than it might have been for others, for one reason: God had already alerted him that this would happen and what it would mean. Shortly after, John pointed Jesus out publicly to others. The words he spoke in doing so were hardly an ordinary introduction. We might say this was John’s statement of faith:

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the One I told you about: ‘After me comes a man who has surpassed me, because He existed before me.’ I didn’t know Him, but I came baptizing with water so He might be revealed to Israel.”

And John testified, “I watched the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He rested on Him. I didn’t know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The One you see the Spirit descending and resting on—He is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that He is the Son of God!” (John 1:29–34)

Fascinatingly, John’s faith in—or perhaps I should say “faith about”—Jesus went far beyond what most people would have claimed about the Messiah in his day and age. Based on the passages we’ve read, we know from his words that he believed the time had come for Israel’s long history of exile and oppression to end. He believed that Yahweh was about to return and deliver his people at long last. He believed Yahweh would do this through an individual, an “Anointed One” or Messiah who would rule as a king in the pattern of David and Solomon—as a victorious conqueror who loved the law of God and turned the people’s hearts back to righteousness (in the mold of David); and as a supernaturally wise and just king reigning over a Golden Age of peace and prosperity (in the mold of Solomon).

And because of the prophecies regarding the curse, the monstrous empires, and the “little horn,” John likely also believed that the Messiah’s coming would be preceded by intense suffering. He may have seen the fulfilment of this as already past, having taken place during the figurative 490 years between the Babylonian exile and his own day, or he may have seen it as still coming to a final head—perhaps even in his own sufferings.

All of this was fairly standard—Messianic expectation that most faithful, biblically conservative Jews in the first century would have agreed with. Yet, we also have some evidence that he believed that Jesus was more than a man. In some sense, and more clearly than any prophet before him, he seems to have understood Jesus to be preexistent and divine. As we’ve already seen, in the first century AD there did exist a fringe belief in the Messiah as a divine being, probably derived from the visions of Daniel. John’s own words strongly indicate he held to this much less normative belief. And he applied it to a man he could see standing in front of him—his own cousin.

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the One I told you about: ‘After me comes a man who has surpassed me, because He existed before me.’ I didn’t know Him, but I came baptizing with water so He might be revealed to Israel.” (John 1:29–31)

John responded, “No one can receive a single thing unless it’s given to him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. He must increase, but I must decrease … The One who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth is earthly and speaks in earthly terms. The One who comes from heaven is above all.” (John 3:27–31)

To be continued …


This is Part 174 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 sergio on Unsplash




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