To anyone familiar with the Jewish scriptures there was something about John the Baptist that ineluctably echoed the prophets of old. For one thing, the “word” (rhēma) or revelation came to John in the desert. This already has a prophetic connotation (cf. Jer. 1:1–14). For another, it wasn’t just that John preached the need to repent. It was, at least in part, that he preached it out in the desert, “in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2).
Luke makes explicit the connection of John to Isaiah, citing an evidently messianic passage (Isa. 40:3–5). Here Luke puts together the judgment voice of Isaiah’s condemnation of Israel and calling it to repentance (cf. Isa. 11) with the consolatory mood of Isa. 40 (“comfort ye my people”) in a striking juxtaposition. John is here not only acting, as Malachi had predicted, as an agent to turn “the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6; Luke 7:27), but in a more radically transgenerational way calling the dispirited and scattered Israel of his time to repent. Then he invites the penitents to be baptized as a sign of cleansing from their sins so that these individuals may become the faithful Israel long ago covenanted in a spiritual marriage to Israel’s most holy God.
This message could hardly have come at a time when the Jewish political fortunes were at a lower ebb—at least since the Babylonian captivity and perhaps the “abomination of desolation,” the setting up by Antiochus IV Epiphanes of a statue of Zeus Olympus on the altar of burnt offerings. As Gregory the Great and Bonaventure have it, it was clear to all that “Judea had come to an end, for it was subjected and divided into so many kingdoms” (Bonaventure 2001–4: 1.5.228). Jerusalem was now again possessed by an alien power; all manner of vile judgment had fallen on it, and when the authentic voice of a prophet as of old was heard to cry out in the desert, many who were despondent but yet yearned in their hearts for the peace of Jerusalem went out to hear this prophet for themselves.
©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.