As today is the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, I would like to examine the words spoken to his father, Zechariah, regarding what sort of a man John would grow up to become. I would then like to compare what is said here (and what we know about the Baptist’s life) with the life of one who he was often compared with – Elijah the Tishbite – and what this might tell us about John’s mission and message. Firstly then, I shall look at the opening chapter of Luke’s gospel, where Gabriel appears to Zechariah and announces that his wife Elizabeth will bear a child named John. Gabriel then says that:
‘…he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Eli′jah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’ (vv.16-17)
So here we have an explicit identification of John with the prophet Elijah, and also an explanation of what the ‘spirit and power’ of Elijah entails – John will, like the prophet of old, convict the people of their sinfulness, direct them to repentance and renovation of their lives, and prepare them for the reception of the true God in their midst. Zechariah himself, when he regains the power of speech, details his son’s vocation in these terms as well:
‘And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ (vv.76-79)
The parallels with Elijah are continued in the observation that John dwelt in the wilderness (Luke 1:80; 3:2) as the Tishbite did, and that he wore ‘a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist’ (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6) just like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Furthermore, whilst the Baptist denies explicitly being the prophet Elijah returned, or indeed a prophet at all in the usual sense (John 1:21), Jesus claims him as the fulfilment of Elijah’s return (Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13), presumably seeing him as fulfilling the prophecies in Malachi (3:1 and 4:5-6).
In what sense though was Elijah’s vocation similar to John’s – how was it that he ‘prepared the way for the Lord’ – and how did it differ? The answer to the first question seems clear enough. Elijah recalls the people of Israel from worship of Ba’al, and urges them to worship the true God, God as He really is (the meaning of his name is ‘My God is Yahweh’), highlighting their double-mindedness and calling them to devote themselves to the true God of all creation (c.f.; 1 Kings 18:21ff). He draws attention to the sinfulness of kings (as John does to Herod) and the need for repentance across the land (c.f.; 1 Kings 18:18; 19:14; 21:20-24). He prepares the people to receive the real God and His laws, not the gods they have made for themselves, and the way of living they have found to be convenient.
Saint John the Baptist also does these things – denounces the sin of kings and the people; calls them to repentance; prepares them for the coming of the true God of Israel and all the world. But the difference now, the reason that Jesus could say that ‘among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist’ (Matthew 11:11), is that the Baptist prepares the way for the people to receive not just the knowledge that the God of Israel is the true God, but that the innermost nature of God will be revealed in Jesus Christ. John prophesies one who will ‘baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Matthew 3:11) in whom ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God’ (Luke 3:6), the ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).
In the life of John then, prophesied at the time of his conception by the Archangel, and at his birth by Zechariah, we have a true inheritor of Elijah’s mantle, but also one who extends and deepens the Tishbite’s message of repentance and salvation. The good news brought by John the Baptist, is that in and through the man Jesus, the Kingdom of God is ushered in to us here on earth, and that in and through this man we may have intimate communion with and knowledge of God. In this man Jesus, we see and know God Himself, and only in Him can we find salvation from our sins.