PREPARE YE THE WAY
John the Baptist was more than a voice. He not only echoed the words of Elijah, but he is representative of all the people who would receive Jesus. He is the fore-shadowing of what those people would become—the Church.
The sign that John was a milestone in God’s Covenant is seen in the circumstances of his birth. The first miracle of the Covenant God made with Abraham was the birth of Isaac. This set a precedent. The hallmark of the Covenant would be birth—specifically, life arising out of deadness and impossibility. Abraham and Sarah represented the condition of all mankind—spiritually sterile, and, because of their age, dying. God’s Covenant was the promise of new life. The token of the covenant—circumcision—indicated that this new life would come about without flesh. The child of promise—Isaac—was not born until after Abraham was circumcised.
Zacharias and Elisabeth, like Isaac’s parents, were barren and advanced in years. This fact alone points to special significance in the life of John. What we are told about them sheds more light.
Zacharias means, Jehovah has remembered. Elisabeth means, God of the oath, and is derived from the Hebrew word for seven, which means, to be completed. John means, Jehovah-favored, or beloved. These names put into a sentence is the Lord—the Covenant-making God—speaking to mankind: “Beloved, I have remembered and completed my oath.” This was John’s message—”The time has come.”
When Gabriel appeared to Zacharias to tell him God had heard and answered his prayer for a child, Zacharias was ministering in the temple, burning incense. We are also told that at the time this was occurring, the whole multitude of people were praying outside (Luke 1:8-17). If we are to really see John as the foreshadowing of the Church we should be able to see this pattern elsewhere.
In the book of the Revelation, there is an interlude between the opening of the seals and the sounding of the first trumpet. The seals show the completed work of redemption. Before the trumpets we are shown a picture of an angel with a golden censer offering prayers and incense to God. Since this is happening immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, this has to be the prayers of the one hundred and twenty gathered in the upper room awaiting power from on high. The angel then takes fire from the altar and casts it into the earth. This is Pentecost. The next thing we see is the sounding of the trumpets—the voice of the church.
In both of these scenes the same elements are present—prayer, incense, and an angelic presence. In both instances—the announcement of John’s birth, and the trumpets preparing to sound—we have evidence of a coming herald.
Gabriel told Zacharias that many would rejoice at the birth of John and that the child would be filled with the Holy Spirit. Many of the children of Israel would turn to the Lord because of John. He would speak in the spirit and power of Elijah. He would make ready a people prepared for the Lord. This is also the mission of the Church—to preach Jesus, preparing men’s hearts to receive him.
This prophesy about John is eclipsed only by that of Jesus in its magnitude. John was a blood relative of Jesus, which serves to show the very close relationship between the mission each was sent to accomplish. Jesus was the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29). The blood tie between Jesus and John is an indication of the Blood that would bring each believer into the household of God.
Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and second only to that, John was baptized in the Spirit while yet unborn. This happened when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visited Elisabeth, who was pregnant with John. It was the proximity of Jesus that caused John’s in-filling. This is a beautiful picture of mankind carrying the Spirit of Jesus to those who will receive him. The fact that this happened between two unborn babies who could not possibly communicate physically demonstrates that salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit. John, born with the Spirit, is a picture of the new spirit-birth of the church.
John knew that Jesus was his cousin, but because he received the Holy Spirit from Jesus before he was born, he was able to recognize Jesus as the Messiah at the river Jordan. It was the Spirit that bore witness!
Jesus submitted to the baptism of John to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). Just as Israel was baptized into Moses, thus becoming the figure of the church; Jesus coming to John for baptism was the figure of the believer, having received the Word, being baptized into the church.
John’s ministry was to prepare people to receive Jesus. He was the herald for the coming of the Lord. The Jews were looking for the Messiah, but they were expecting more of a political leader—someone who would overthrow the Roman Empire and set up headquarters in Jerusalem. They were looking for a bodily, materialistic rescue—-not spiritual freedom. Their focus wasn’t much different than that of denominational Christianity today. In both cases, people tend to look for a rescue from outward circumstances without inward change. Jesus’ mission was to liberate man from sin so that man could deal with the circumstances of poverty, sickness and the bondage of evil.
This is where the similarities between then and now are so striking. When John began heralding the coming of the Lord, he wasn’t referring to a dramatic event where the sky would split open and a huge shining figure would swoop down and throw lightening bolts. Jesus was already on earth in a body. The coming of the Lord heralded the beginning of Jesus’ work. Jesus the Messiah was concealed in a body, but John’s anointed vision saw the truth beyond the flesh. It was John’s revelation that identified Jesus to the world. The church must have the same revelation—Jesus is here!
The work of the church today is the same as what John preached—repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus—take on his identity—put on Christ! The church today preaches the coming of the Lord and just as when John preached—Jesus’ body is already here! Jesus responded to John’s heralding by beginning the work of his ministry. The same will happen today when we allow his identity to come into his body and continue the works he did before. John saw the spirit, in the form of a dove descending upon Jesus. He saw evidence of the Spirit! The church needs to show that same evidence!
The church’s eventual lapse into ineffectiveness was also mirrored in the life of John. Because of his message of repentance, John angered Herod and was imprisoned, and then beheaded. Likewise, Satan was not only angered, but afraid of the success of the early church, and through subtle and deceptive tactics managed to lure the focus of the church away from the simplicity of Christ. As a result, the church found itself imprisoned in the ornate, but powerless labyrinth of religion. This was the same thing that happened under the old Covenant, proving that Satan tends to use the same old tricks—because they work.
John was almost like two different people—bold and confident while preaching—and weakened by doubt in prison. It was while he was in prison that he sent his disciples to Jesus with the question, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” This doesn’t sound like the prophet who looked up to see Jesus at the Jordan river and proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” ( John 1:29). It seems unthinkable that this could be the same man. Instead of calling out to Jesus in confident assurance, John’s only words were a doubt-filled question—”Art thou he?”
By the same token, the church, once so bold, having begun in the power of the Holy Spirit, working miracles and saving people by the thousands on a daily basis, fell into the same doubtful posture within a century or so. John was beheaded while in prison and the church, locked within the same dungeon of confusion and unbelief, lost its head as well.
John’s question, “Art thou he?” sheds some light on the reason for his and the church’s decline into powerlessness. While preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit, John’s focus was singular and straight. He lived and breathed his conviction that the time had come for God’s promised redeemer to be revealed. This God-given vision was so real to John that he knew Jesus was the Messiah without being told by anyone but the Holy Spirit. (John 1:33) If he could ask the question, “Are you the one?” is evidence that his focus had veered.
This is exactly what happened in the church. The focus gradually shifted from Jesus to certain church leaders. Just as in the wilderness when the children of Israel preferred to have Moses hear from God for them, many of the early Christians became spiritually lazy, just like today, relying on pastors to do their praying and seeking God for them. This passivity led to weakness, and soon people were floundering in the dark having forgotten what they had lost sight of.
The very human—carnal—tendency to elevate men is a misplaced longing to see something rather than relying on faith in the unseen. The fact that God is Spirit and must be worshipped in spirit gets lost in the shuffle when people want to revere the men God uses. This can be seen in the account of the transfiguration. (Matthew 17: 1-13)
Jesus had been speaking to his disciples about his coming death and resurrection. Peter disagreed saying this should not happen, but Jesus, in turn, rebuked Peter for savoring the things of men more than the things of God. He went on to say that anyone who wanted to follow him would have to practice self-denial and take up his cross, or, die to self. This is a good way of saying, “Keep your focus.” Then Jesus spoke about coming into his kingdom in the glory and power of his Father. He wanted them to understand what his kingdom really was.
Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain apart. A high mountain designates the superiority of Divine Government, and apart signifies the status of the church—called apart. (Interestingly, the number twelve means Divine Government and can be obtained by adding two—which means separation—and ten—which means redemption.) The three disciples were a token of all the people called apart to populate his kingdom.
In their presence, Jesus’ face shined like the sun and his raiment became white as the light. Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with Jesus. Peter’s reaction was to suggest they set up three tabernacles, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Mark 9:6 states that Peter didn’t know what to say because they were so afraid. His remark was typical in a situation where one feels that something appropriate needs to be said, so Peter made a religious suggestion. The problem was that three tabernacles would put Moses and Elijah on the same level as Jesus. It would serve to scatter ones focus and encourage the reverence of men. Remember, just before this incident Peter had been rebuked for regarding the things of men more than the things of God.
While that rather lame suggestion was coming out of Peter’s mouth, a cloud overshadowed them and God spoke. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” God was not simply introducing Jesus as his Son. Peter already knew this. Before this incident took place Jesus had asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. God’s words, “This is my beloved Son…” was a response to the vision they had seen and Peter’s remark about the three tabernacles. God was telling Peter that this vision is my Son.
Moses and Elijah represent the Messianic aspects of the Old Covenant that Jesus became in the New Covenant. Israel was baptized into Moses, the deliverer. This was the church before Pentecost—set apart from the world, but not as yet empowered with the Holy Spirit. Elijah represents the spirit baptism—the power following Pentecost. Moses is the flesh buried in water baptism thus preparing the spirit for the in-filling. Moses died, but God buried him and the site remains a secret with God—just as the believer’s life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). Elijah never died physically but was taken up to heaven bodily. This represents the renewal and imperishability of the spirit. Also, Elijah left his mantle—his anointing —behind, just as Jesus did.
Another aspect of Elijah is his most well remembered act—the contest with the prophets of Baal to see whose god was God (1Kings 18: 31-38). Elijah took twelve stones and built an altar, and after laying the wood and the sacrifice on that altar he had a trench dug around it and ordered twelve barrels of water be poured over the sacrifice. Then the fire of God came and consumed, or received, the sacrifice. This sacrifice had been baptized! Jesus is the baptized blood sacrifice that paid the ultimate price of sin. (Note: Elijah laid the sacrifice upon an altar of twelve stones, and had twelve barrels of water poured over it. Twelve indicates the perfect order, or the government, arising out of sanctification and redemption which precede the fire of the anointing.)
This is my beloved Son. This vision is Jesus. 1John 5:7-8 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. The water baptism, the spirit baptism, and the blood all agree in Jesus.
In this account of the transfiguration, Matthew 17:8 gives us the focus for the church. And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only. If the church is to stay filled with the power of the Spirit, we cannot take our eyes off the source of the Spirit—Jesus only. Getting caught up in personalities is a deadly pursuit. The only cure for this is to put our eyes back where they belong—back on Jesus.
Peter, James, and John were told not to talk about the vision until after Jesus was resurrected. Why? Because the vision was for the church. Some things are better understood in retrospect, and once Jesus had left the earth, they would be more apt to comb their experiences for meaning.
The disciples asked Jesus why it was said that Elijah must come first. Keep in mind that the vision of the transfiguration occurred to illustrate what Jesus said immediately before the vision occurred: “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28).
The vision revealed God’s covenant working in man, for man, and completed by the man Jesus. All these things happened on earth. They happened regardless of circumstances. Every facet of the Covenant was something good for man. All through the years before Jesus, God used the hearts, hands, and voices of many men to reveal, a little at a time, his intent for man. In the transfiguration vision, Moses and Elijah were two men who represented pivotal aspects of the Covenant—deliverance, and the anointing. God himself summed it up—”This is my beloved Son…”
Elijah was expected to return because he had never died physically, and because of his message that would herald the coming of the Lord. John came in the same Spirit and power as Elijah because there is only one Spirit, one source of power, and one message.
In Matthew 17:11 Jesus said Elijah shall come (future tense), and restore all things. Then in verse 12, he said that Elijah is already come and they didn’t recognize him—indicating past tense. He was speaking of the anointing of the Holy Spirit—the one Spirit that empowered both Elijah and John. The message was the same because God’s Spirit does not change. This is why John was representative of the future church—the people who would take up the same anointing and preach the same message—the message of the Anointed One.
The kingdom Jesus revealed in the transfiguration is on earth, not heaven. If his kingdom was to have been in Heaven, they would have seen a vision of Heaven. But the vision was on earth. The whole purpose of the Covenant with man was to re-instate on earth the Heavenly conditions that existed before evil was allowed to run free. Jesus came from God to the earth to settle the score. But he left his Spirit here—for us—for the church. If the message never changes, then the result doesn’t either.
Isaiah 60:1 is a command to the church. It is also an exact picture of the transfiguration. Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
We think we’re waiting on Jesus to decide to come. But his body is already here. He is just waiting on us to recognize him.