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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
William C. Duncan
From The Life, Character and Acts of John The Baptist, 1853
As the last great prophet of the old covenant exhibits to us many other peculiarities in the circumstances of his appearance which differ widely from those of the other prophets, so also is he the only one among them all who was announced to the people by a special prenunciatory prophecy, by which he was, as it were, legitimated. Since the prophets had been silent during so long a period, the expectation of such an one as John and the remembrance of what was to be his peculiar character, had, it may easily be imagined, almost entirely disappeared from among the nation.
The olden time had passed away, and the new was not qualified to estimate at their full value the honors and rights of the prophet; and on this account it was quite necessary that a special divine declaration should indicate the appearance of the last of the prophets, who was to be separated by so great a lapse of time from his predecessors, and should keep alive among the people an expectation of his coming.
Independently of this, the fulfillment of the prophecy respecting the Baptist was intended to be, on account of the close connection of this event of national interest with the coming of the Messiah, a sign and a proof of the approaching fulfillment of those other important Messianic promises.
In order that, by means of this notable occurrence, the unbelieving might be convinced of the truth of God's Word, and that believers, having their attention drawn to the significance of the times, might prepare themselves to receive the Lord in a becoming manner. On this account, it would seem, then, must Malachi, with whom the brilliant series of the prophets was brought to a close, have made mention, at the end of his prophecy (4: 5, 6), of the forerunner who was to prepare the way of the Lord.
It may, indeed, be doubted, at first thought, whether that prophecy really refers to John ; for the forerunner there mentioned is to precede the great and terrible day of the Lord, and to arouse the people to repentance (of which repentance, it may be remarked, only a single individualizing lineament is there drawn, namely, the re-establishment of unity in families, which, naturally, cannot exist apart from other happy influences, but is mentioned in that connection as one only among the blessings which were to flow from the universal re-establishment of love and friendship, and, therefore, of an entirely new spirit among men), in order that the Lord might not be compelled, on his coming, to destroy the whole land as one accursed and obnoxious to condemnation.
Now the first appearance of Christ was by no means a coming to judgment, and, in particular, it was not a grand and fear-inspiring advent. The reference in this passage of Malachi appears, therefore, to pertain rather to the second, yet future, advent of the Messiah, and to the precursor then to be expected. It is to be noted, however, on the one hand, that there is no precise distinction to be recognized in any part of the Old Testament between these two appearances of Christ.
Events which to the spiritual eye appear perspectively near to the view, are conceived and represented as actually connected; and hence we find the Messiah described in the prophets, now as a powerful and fear-inspiring king, now as a lowly and despised servant of God; and his appearance spoken of, now as a day of terror and revolution, now as drawing near amid a calm and cheerful peace.
What can only be spiritually understood of his first coming, and is literally perceptible externally in his second, is conceived of as unfolding itself in a single and undivided appearance. It must be observed, on the other hand, that there actually exists so intimate a connection between the first and the second advent of Christ, with respect to the judgment, that the two might have been very suitably united and treated as one by Malachi.
Whoever does not believe upon the coming Saviour, is already condemned by him, and receives his punishment without delay; he who hails him with joy, is justified, and his reward tarries not. The judgment begins with the first appearance of Christ, though it may be not at all visible to the bodily eye; and, so far, this first appearance may with justice be called the great and terrible day of the Lord. One must here, as everywhere in the prophets, understand well how to separate the moral drapery and ornament in which they are clothed, from the spiritual contents of the prophetic representations.
Even after this difficulty in the prophecy of Malachi has been removed, there yet remains another; for the promised forerunner is called Elijah (without doubt, because he, like the great Tishbite Elijah, should arouse a race which had become perverted and had fallen away from God to repentance, and should work in the spirit and with the power of Elijah, Luke 1:17).
And yet John denies expressly that he is the promised Elias (John 1:21). This passage would in truth be very difficult to understand did we not possess in other parts of the New Testament a complete explanation, according to which John is really intended in this prophecy of Malachi's; from which circumstance we are obliged to conclude that John answered his interrogators in the negative in an altogether peculiar sense.
In the very announcement of the birth of the Baptist by the angel (Luke 1:17), we find a most pointed reference to the passage in Malachi, and one which throws light upon the question now under consideration. He is here spoken of as one who shall go before the Lord "in the spirit and power of Elias" from which we are allowed, if we feel so inclined, to draw the conclusion that Malachi in his prophecy means that a man like Elias, and not Elias in person, should be the precursor of the Messiah.
According to this entirely legitimate explanation, the forerunner is called Elias in this passage of Malachi just as in other prophecies the Messiah is called David, in which there is evidently no thought of the personal re-appearance of that monarch (Jer. 30:9., Ezek. 34:23, Hos. 3:5). In this sense may Christ's declaration that John was the expected Elias (Matt. 11:14; 17:12) be understood, though, it may be, as we shall see further on, that it is to be taken in a somewhat different and higher acceptation.
Furthermore, Mark introduces the passage as a proof that John's appearance was made in accordance with the intention of God (1:2); he cites it, indeed, as if it stood in Isaiah, but this inexactness arose probably from the fact that the passage of a similar bearing which follows in Mark, was borrowed from Isaiah, and the evangelist wished to make use of the former, whether conscious at the time or not of its different connection, as an introduction to and commentary upon the latter. Be this as it may, no difference results in the main point under consideration.
Finally, we have the positive explanation of Christ himself (Matt. 11:10), that John is the one to whom the passage refers; and, in Matt. 17:10 ff., and Mark 9: 11 ff., he speaks in such a way of the promised Elias, that, as Matthew says, his disciples understood him to designate John as that individual.
After the brilliant transfiguration which took place upon the mount, the glorification of Jesus, his disciples, who, relying on the passage in Malachi, supposed that now, since Elias had again appeared, the glory of the Lord of which Malachi speaks, must openly reveal itself,—asked him, in substance, the following question: "How stands the case now with that prophetic declaration which the scribes have ever in their mouths, that the proof that Jesus cannot be the true Messiah is the fact that Elias must first precede the royal advent?" They expected that Jesus would answer them: "Yes, now have you seen Elias, and now too will be revealed the fullness of the glory of the Son of God."
Our Lord, however, whose object it was to show them more and more the necessity of his sufferings and death, of which he had already spoken, replied to the following effect:
"It is true that Elias shall come first and bring all into readiness for the reign of Christ, but how can you reconcile with this view yet other expressions of Scripture which declare that Christ must suffer and be treated with contumely? If these expressions are consonant with the truth, as cannot be denied, and if Christ must undergo many sufferings, another Elias different from him. whom you expect as the precursor of his royalty, must appear, or rather, Elias must appear in different form from what you anticipate; and, in fact, he has already actually appeared, and has suffered and died as the type of his master."
In giving this representation, Jesus evidently had reference to the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist.
On examining the words Of Christ, it cannot escape our notice that he does not expressly assert that John is the Elias promised in Malachi, but on the contrary, he appears to admit some difference between the two, notwithstanding their general resemblance. This difference he expresses yet more distinctly in another passage (Matt. 11:14), where he declares indeed that John is Elias, but adds the limitation, "if ye will receive it."
The identity of the two persons, therefore, is not here unconditionally asserted, but only in a certain aspect of the case; so that we are not constrained to believe that they were one and the same, but may admit it or not, as may seem to us more probable. The question now presents itself, how are we to explain the circumstance that, though the passage in Malachi has an evident reference to John, as Christ himself acknowledged, he does not, nevertheless, declare in express terms that John was Elias? And the additional circumstance that John, for his part, altogether denies the reference.
We must here revert to what has been already remarked respecting the character of prophecy in general and of this prophecy in particular. Malachi did not distinguish between the two appearances of Christ, but conceiving of the two as one, he has represented it as being preceded by the forerunner. The question then arises, whether, if the two advents be united, the prophecy alludes only to a precursor of the first, or also to one of the second appearance.
We have, in fact, no ground to deny the latter supposition. Nay, since the first coming of Christ is in a certain sense only a type of his second and yet future coming, we have rather reason to expect that a forerunner will in like manner usher in the future advent, under circumstances more remarkable, it is probable, than those amid which the first precursor appeared. In accordance with this view, John the Baptist constituted only a partial and typical fulfillment of this prophecy regarding Elias; but it must be left undecided whether this Elias shall be really the Tishbite raised again to life, or only a prophet like him.
If this hypothesis be received as the truth, we can easily explain why Christ referred to John as Elias only in a limited sense,—because, in fact, a yet more perfect Elias was to be expected; and why John himself replied so pointedly in the negative when he was asked whether he was Elias because he knew full well that this prophecy was fulfilled in him, though really, only partially, and that he was by no means the true Elias; though we are not to conclude from this, what cannot be true, that John thought of Christ's second coming.
The Baptist, however, gave no additional explanation of the sense in which he responded to the question in the negative because it would have been, on the one hand, something altogether foreign from his earnest straightforward prophetic character, to which a brief yes and no were appropriate, to enter upon expositions of this kind, and because, on the other hand, such was the object which they sought who put the interrogatory, that he deemed them unworthy of any further explanation.
The Pharisees evidently intended to assure themselves, as soon as possible, of the forerunner of a Messiah accommodated to their fleshly way of thinking, to draw him over to their side that he might secretly play into their hands; and hoped by means of this examination to win him over to their interest. In order to prevent them from instituting such a formal examination of his claims as a prophet, John must have abruptly responded in the negative. But he had also an altogether special reason for giving them a distinct denial, and this was the fact that an expectation was probably entertained by the people, as seems to be proved also by the questions put to Christ by his disciples, an expectation based on the passage in Malachi, which they understood in its most literal sense, that the Tishbite would actually appear in person as one who had arisen from the dead
If the question were put to him in this sense, he must likewise have responded, as he did, in the negative. Those who had been impelled to him from a feeling of their internal necessities, did not on their part suffer themselves to be dispirited by this denial, since the positive explanation of his calling, by the Baptist, in accordance with another passage of the Old Testament, which we have yet to examine more closely, knit them more firmly into his companionship.
In any event, the following truths are firmly established by our examination of the passage in Malachi: It really refers to John, and is fulfilled, though not completely, in him ; and the forerunner must be conceived of as preceding the first advent of Christ, not only because the mention of his coming in the prophecy is general, but because, in particular, the passage is unquestionably referred to John in the New Testament, and the name Elias is conferred upon him, with, however, as has been seen, a not insignificant limitation.
We have, accordingly, in these verses of Malachi, a direct prophecy, if not of the person of John, at least of his office as the precursor of Christ, and in the comparison between him and the Tishbite Elijah we have an indication of his personal character and of the relation in which he stood to his time.
We have, moreover, a positive explanation of John's respecting himself and his calling (John 1:23), which, in like manner, refers us back to a prophetic passage in the Old Testament. The same passage, Isa. 40:3-5, is employed by the three evangelists, in the beginning of their respective narratives (Matt. 3:3; Luke 3:4-6; Mark 1:3), as a proof not only of the propriety, but also of the necessity, of the Baptist's appearance.
In the place in question the subject is the deliverance of Israel from great trouble. Jehovah announces to his people an end of sufferings, and sends a messenger before him in order to prepare a way for him who was soon to appear as a deliverer, and to make ready for his advent. Without doubt, the prophet, in this passage, speaks himself as this ambassador and messenger, who is, in this and the following discourses, to proclaim and prepare a way for the coming of the Lord.
Neither the Baptist nor the evangelists mean to assert that the forerunner there alluded to is actually identical with John though Matthew seems to declare it when he says: "this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias," etc.; while Mark ("as it is written in the prophets") and Luke ("as it is written in the book of the words of Esaias") would evidently only indicate by the citation the necessity of the advent of John. Matthew, however, only intends to say that this John is the complete realization of that forerunner spoken of in Isaiah, which latter can only be regarded as the type of the former, just as the advent of the Lord in Israel, there described, is only an image of his advent in the flesh. So conceived as a type, this passage is peculiarly applicable in the connection in which it stands in the evangelists.
As the coming of the Lord spoken of in the prophet, was now realized in its highest sense, so must the coming of the forerunner be also realized in its relative highest sense, and, therefore, John could with entire correctness declare that in him was fulfilled the prophecy contained in the passage under consideration. The passage, therefore, must be classed among those to which a double application may be assigned, primarily, events near at hand, but secondarily to others yet, at the time of the prophecy, far removed in the future,—the former being, so to speak, typical of the former.
So must the citation be explained, unless we have recourse to the not very satisfactory expedient of "accommodation," and paraphrase with the "later Commentators" alluded to by Bloomfield (on John 1:23), "What the prophet (namely, Isa. 4:3) there says, holds good of me; you will find there, what will be a sufficient description of my person and office." The original historical reference is evidently such as has been stated. Alford, however, remarks: "The primary and literal application of this prophecy to the return from captivity is very doubtful. If it ever had such an application, we may safely say that its predictions were so imperfectly and sparingly fulfilled in that return, or anything which followed it, that we are necessarily directed onward to its greater fulfillment—the announcement of the kingdom of Christ."
How it happened that all three evangelists made use of this citation, is easily explicable when we consider this evident connection between that prophecy and the appearance of the Baptist. It had, no doubt, become customary in the regular and almost stereotyped narratives of the life and acts of Christ while upon earth, which were circulated in the churches, to introduce the history of the ministry of John with this citation, and hence we find it in the same connection in all three evangelists. The evangelists, however, have only the third verse from Isaiah in common, while John also refers only this one to himself, and it is clear that this indicates most strikingly and most concisely the relation of the Baptist to Christ.
Luke alone adds the fourth and the fifth verse (the last only in part), which contain a further description of the office of the forerunner, and a promise of the approaching glory of God; and which are quite applicable to John's case, though not so much so as verse three. Luke, also, with spiritual freedom changes the citation, in order to make it suitable to the object for which he introduces it. He leaves out, for example, the words, "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed;" without doubt, because Christ had as yet appeared only in humility, and not in glory.
On the other hand, the following, "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" was with him the chief reason of introducing the citation ; for the condition of beholding this salvation is that a road be broken up into the heart, in order to render easy and finally to allow, the entrance of the Lord into the soul. To open up just such a road had John the Baptist come as the forerunner of Christ.
Upon this passage in Isaiah—which, on account of its being typical, could have been, and was, recognized as prophetical only by its fulfillment—the Jews appear not to have grounded any expectation of a forerunner, but only upon the altogether direct prophecy of Malachi. For this reason, those among the nation whose hearts were hardened to every holy impression, understood not what John meant when he referred to the passage, and were unequal to the task of finding out the drift of his words. While on the contrary, those whose souls were susceptible obtained by means of the same explanation, a clear insight into the peculiar character and vocation of the Baptist.
Finally, we have yet to examine another expectation which, as it appears, many among the Jews entertained at the coming of John ; and which they exhibited when they asked of him whether he was "the prophet" (John 1:21). It will, perhaps, be difficult to ascertain at the present time, precisely who it was they supposed "the prophet" to be.
The supposition that Jeremiah is there called simply "the prophet" and that from this circumstance he was afterwards so distinguished by the nation, is incapable of being proved; and, moreover, that Matthew appears to have had a conception of Jeremiah's returning alive among the people (16:14) cannot be adduced in favor of the hypothesis, for such a return, according to the ideas of those whom Matthew introduces as the speakers, is possible also to the other prophets ; and, to conclude the whole, it can be proved in no case that Jeremiah was ever actually spoken of among the people as simply "the prophet."
We must, perhaps, go back in preference to the promise of Moses (Deut. 18:15): "The Lord thy God will raise up to thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me." This promise, it is true, was referred by the Jews at a very early period to the Messiah (cp. John 6:14; Acts 3:22; 7:37), but interpreters were never entirely certain that a prophets-different from the Messiah is not here meant (cp. John prenunciatory 7:40).
At least, it seems to have been thought worthwhile by those who interrogated John, when he answered their query respecting his being the Messiah in the negative, to inquire of him, in a second question, whether another prophet than the Messiah is announced by Moses, and whether he was that particular prophet. Here also were they foiled in their object by John, and since they, under the influence of their perverted fleshly expectations regarding the Messiah, and, in a similar manner, regarding his precursor, knew not what to think of his reply, they requested him to give a positive explanation of his meaning. The explanation which they desired was given by the Baptist in words which, to their dull understandings, were as unintelligible as his former replies.