The Priest Who Became a Messenger

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This post is an excerpt from a book on John the Baptist being published in 2020.

The message of Malachi summarized John’s life and message: 

  • The priesthood had become compromised and politicized. 
  • Priests were to be God’s messengers, but the priesthood had failed and therefore not instructed the people in the knowledge of God. 
  • YHWH would send a priest who would be His messenger to prepare the way for the Lord to come to His temple and purify the priesthood. 
  • There would be a company who treasured the Lord, feared His name, and became His treasured possession. 
  • God was going to expand the priesthood beyond the city of Jerusalem out into the nations. 

John was the messenger of Malachi 3:1 and a picture of a priestly people who would fear the Lord, serve as His messengers, and become His treasured possession. John’s preaching carried allusions to Malachi 3 and Malachi 4:1 that demonstrate John knew exactly who He was [1]. When the crowds heard John, they assumed He was a prophet, but in reality he was a priest who became the Lord’s public messenger for a few months. His assignment as a messenger was profound, but it was not his core identity. 

John’s lifelong assignment was to live as a priest before the Lord in a generation where the priesthood in Jerusalem had failed. 

God made John a messenger for a brief window of time, but John was more than a preacher and more than a prophet. In the wilderness John had become the Lord’s “treasured possession.” [2] 

John was born for the priesthood. He was the child of a priest. His miraculous birth was predicted in a priestly context. He lived His entire life as a priest, but a priest of a different kind. John was given the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb as a prototype of a new people who would be priests by virtue of the gift of the Spirit. 

John was a picture of the priesthood Malachi predicted would emerge in the nations because he ministered on the far side of the Jordan. The far side of the Jordan was very symbolic because Isræl officially entered the land by crossing the Jordan as a people. The people had to go outside the land—symbolically in the land of the Gentiles— to hear John. After repenting and being baptized they then returned to the land. 

God’s voice was John’s greatest delight and he stood as a prototype of a priestly people who will love the Word of God, dwell in the nations, and became messengers of the God of Isræl. Like John this priestly people are called to speak to Isræl and provoke her to return to her priestly calling. The Lord had a priest in the wilderness—outside the land—who was more priestly than the priests in Jerusalem. John was like the sons of Zadok who were faithful to the Lord even when the people had gone astray: 

15 “But the Levitical priests, the sons of Zadok, who kept the charge of my sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray from me, shall come near to me to minister to me… (Ezekiel 44:15 ESV) 

John was also a prototype of a new priesthood ministering to God in the nations while Jerusalem is not yet saved and her priesthood not yet purified. 

All of this was behind Jesus’ probing questions: what did you go out to see? If John had simply been a messenger, Jesus would have asked, “what did you go out to hear?” He asked, “what did you go to see” because John did not just speak a message to Isræl, he was a message to Isræl. The people thought they were looking at a prophet, but they were looking at a priest. John was an embodiment of the message of Malachi calling the people to be a priestly people. 

John was a picture of what God wanted from His people. 

If the crowds did not see John as a priest they had missed the message. 

No Man Greater

After Jesus identified John as the messenger of Malachi, He gave His well-known evaluation of John: 

10 This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist… (Matthew 11:10–11 ESV) 

Jesus’ evaluation of John was given in context to John’s fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. John was obviously a profound preacher and one of the greatest messengers in biblical history, but Jesus’ evaluation was not based on John’s speaking ability. It was connected to Malachi’s prophecy. 

John was not great simply because His public ministry was powerful. There are other examples of “powerful ministry” in the Bible. Nor did his greatness flow exclusively from the assignment He was given to prepare the way of Jesus. He was great because he stood before the Lord in the wilderness, treasured the Lord’s words, and ministered to Him is a generation where Jerusalem’s priesthood had failed. [3]

John and Elijah 

5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. (Malachi 4:5 ESV) 

14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. (Matthew 11:14 ESV)

Jesus also used Malachi to compare John to Elijah. This connection further enforced John’s priestly identity, because Elijah also lived in a time when Isræl’s priesthood had failed. In Elijah’s generation the priesthood had been so corrupted it was involved in the nation’s idolatry. The temple in Jerusalem had been abandoned for idols in Samaria. 

Like John, Elijah suddenly appeared to Isræl: 

1 Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand…” (1 Kings 17:1 ESV)

Elijah had one qualification: he stood before the Lord. Neither John nor Elijah were in Jerusalem nor part of the temple, but both had the same qualification: they stood before the Lord in a small place. John and Elijah were both were priestly men in the wilderness in a generation when Isræl’s priesthood had failed. They both lived out Malachi 2:7. 

Elijah was a wilderness priest raised up to confront a priesthood so Isræl would return to her proper priestly identity. John followed that same pattern. The most famous story about Elijah is the story of his contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. That contest was a battle of the priests. The false priests offered their sacrifices and God’s priest offered his. 

John and Elijah were both connected to the Jordan River, wore similar clothing, preached a message of repentance, and persecuted by a wicked king. But none of these things capture the heart of either man. John and Elijah were deeply connected because both were priestly men who ministered to the Lord in the wilderness (nations) and confronted false priesthoods. As a result, fire fell when Elijah prayed and the Spirit fell on Jesus when John baptized Him. 

John and Elijah were deeply connected, but there is one way in which they were not: Elijah was primarily known as a man of power, signs, and wonders. He controlled the weather and he called down fire from heaven. However, we are explicitly told John did not do any miraculous signs. John the Baptist was a man in the spirit of Elijah but lacking a primary characteristic of Elijah ministry. From what we can tell John was primarily known for powerful proclamation based on the biblical prophets. 

The fact John was in the spirit of Elijah but lacking what Elijah is primarily known for indicates he is not the full and final fulfillment of the spirit of Elijah. When we consider what Jesus said about John and Elijah [4] it leads us to a sobering conclusion: John is a prototype of an end-time ministry of preparation that will combine powerful proclamation of the Scripture with the kind of power Elijah demonstrated. The two will come together in the final generation before Jesus returns. [5]

[1] Matthew 3:10-12; Luke 3:16-17. 

[2] Malachi 3:17.

[3] This is not to suggest all the priests were corrupt, but the conflict between Jesus and some of the religious leaders indicates the leadership of the priesthood was not functioning the way it was designed to.

[4] Matthew 17:10-13. 

[5] We see a picture of this in Revelation 11. 

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