The Voice in the Wilderness

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face … the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ John appeared … proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (vv. 2–4).

- Mark 1:1–8

Interpreting the prophets correctly can be difficult because of the highly symbolic language they often use in proclaiming their oracles. Isaiah 40:1–5, for example, uses wilderness imagery, as well as a metaphorical picture of terrain being flattened, in order to tell the exiled people of Israel and Judah that God was going to bring about a new exodus, a new redemption. The Lord once came and called His people out of Egyptian slavery into the wilderness, and He was going to come again and redeem His people from the sin that led to their exile, arriving from His abode on Mount Sinai in the wilderness. Therefore, the people had to get ready. They had to prepare the way of the Lord, that is, they had to prepare their hearts for His coming.

Even though Isaiah uses metaphorical language to predict this redemption, we need not think that the language is wholly figurative. In fact, it is not. As we read in today’s passage, the prophet’s oracle was fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist. Mark quotes Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1, but he cites only Isaiah as the source of the quotation. The biblical writers, especially when quoting the prophets, often cite passages from two or more prophets but name only one of them, the prophet with the larger book.

The ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy did not occur in 538 BC, when the exiled Judahites began returning to the Promised Land, but nearly six hundred years later, during the first century AD. As we will see in the months ahead, the initial returnees were not faithful to God, so the hard conditions of exile persisted until He finally visited His people in the person of Jesus Christ. Through Isaiah, the Lord called the people to prepare themselves, but they could not do so. A mightier move of the Holy Spirit through John was needed to get the people ready for the Messiah. Indeed, the Spirit must always take the first step “that we may take out of the way those sins which obstruct the kingdom of Christ, and thus may give access to his grace” (John Calvin).

Thanks be to God, He did take the initiative, preparing the way for Christ through John. The Lord is always faithful to His promise to save His elect. Calvin comments, “There are intricate and crooked windings in the world, but through such appalling difficulties the Lord makes a way for himself, and breaks through, by incredible means, to accomplish our salvation.”

Coram Deo

As important as he was in God’s plan of salvation, John the Baptist was called not to exalt himself but to point to the Savior. That is our task today. As many have said, we are just “poor beggars telling other beggars where they can find bread.” Thus, we must continually point beyond ourselves to Christ, refusing to puff ourselves up but submitting wholly and eagerly to Him as the only Savior. In ourselves, we are nothing. Christ is everything.

Passages for Further Study

Malachi 4:5
John 1:29–34

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