John the Baptist

John the Baptist and Elijah

Detail from Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (d. 1682)

The Puzzle

Jesus testified of John the Baptist that, “if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matt. 11:14). John the Baptist was the forerunner of the Lord. Therefore, when Jesus will later speak in reference to John the Baptist, as “Elijah…come already” (Matt. 17:12-13), He is saying that John was an Elijah-figure, even though John himself had told the people that he was not Elijah (Jn. 1:21).

Because Christ was rejected for who He was, John’s Elijah-like role was also rejected. But there is a fascinating double entendre in Jesus’ witness to John, as can best be seen if we reexamine what is said in Matthew 17:

And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”

Jesus answered and said to them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things.

“But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. (Matt. 17:10-12).

What is interesting about the Lord’s testimony here is that He seems to give the impression that John the Baptist’s ministry ended with his martyrdom (Matt. 14:1-11), yet He also said that “Elijah is coming first and will restore all things.” (Matt. 17:11). So what is the connection between John and Elijah?

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John the Baptist Preaches the Kingdom

Detail from Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (d. 1682)

After Matthew has completed his narration of Jesus’ birth, ending at His family’s relocation in Nazareth, he plunges straight in to John the Baptist’s preaching of the Kingdom. Both the Gospels and Josephus1 accord John the Baptist a place of honor as a highly respected (at least among the general populace) and powerful influence in Judea and Galilee in the twenties A. D. From Luke 3:7, 15, 21, Matthew 3:5, and Mark 1:5 it is clear that he drew a lot of attention and that his impact was marked. He even had a band of followers (Lk. 7:19; Jn. 3:25), and some of these men continued to be identified as his disciples for years. The Apostle Paul encountered some as far afield as Ephesus in Acts 19:1-7. John’s job was not to grant certain initiates private access to Messiah’s identity. Rather, John introduced Jesus with a loud bang!

John the Baptist’s preaching is chock full of OT references. Walter Kaiser notes over fifty allusions or quotations of the OT, mainly from Isaiah, Malachi, and Jeremiah.2 John is a new prophet of God who has appeared on the scene after more than four centuries of silence, but he is an OT prophet in character and substance. His ministry is announced, Elijah-like, suddenly by Matthew:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:1-2)

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