The John the Baptist Experience
Book 1: The Exceptional Messenger
Chapter 3: “The Voice of One”
John the Baptist in Isaiah’s Prophecy
Copyright © 20221
John’s Self-Identification: John 1:19-24
They had to know. The Judean leadership of the Pharisees wanted to get to the bottom of the phenomenon going on in the Jordan River Valley. Thousands of people were flocking to this man called John, listening to his preaching and teaching, and confessing their sins — publicly! In front of the crowds! How unseemly. And thousands of these penitents were being baptized by this… this… well, they didn’t have a category in which to pigeonhole him.
So these Bible-believing, historical-miracle-affirming, resurrection-professing Pharisees (they did have some of their doctrines right, whatever their overall spiritual reputation) sent priests and Levites to question John. Why the choice of “priests and Levites” as representatives? No doubt John’s priestly lineage was known. “How did this only son of righteous Zechariah, that solid, sterling priest of such great and irreproachable reputation, wind up out here so far from Jerusalem? Why isn’t he serving in the priesthood like he should be? Why is he clothed in camel skin and not in the sacred linen garments like a proper priest of his calling? Why isn’t he being ‘respectable’ like us?”
If this delegation was polite, they waited until a break in John’s preaching and baptizing. If they were haughty or impatient, they might have interrupted his preaching, intruded while he was hearing a confession and giving counsel, or barged in during a baptism. However and whenever they did it, the visitors’ questioning was straightforward:
- 19“Who are you?”
- 20And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
- 21They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?”And he said, “I am not.”3 “Are you the Prophet?”4 And he answered, “No.”
- 22Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?”
- 23He said, “I am
- ‘A voice of one crying in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord,” ’
- as Isaiah the prophet said.”
- John 1:19-24 nasb5
Isaiah 40:3 in Context
Let’s turn to the verse John quoted, Isaiah 40:3, but as we do, we’ll ask a very important question of the text, namely, “What’s the context?” Part of understanding context is being aware that chapters and verses didn’t exist originally in the Bible.6 Such divisions are relatively “modern” inventions, mostly the work of scholars in the 10th and 11th centuries a.d. Chapters and verses have been very useful in some ways, but their existence gave rise to a trend that allows us to rip “a verse” out of context and think that we have extracted a “nugget of truth.”
In our day of Bible ignorance (yes, even among Christians, I’m very sad to say), so few can do what Bible readers of the Old and New Testaments could do, namely, hear a short passage (I almost wrote “verse”!) and recall the context from which it came. The long-term cure for our Biblical illiteracy is to commit to the lifelong spiritual discipline of reading through the Scriptures cover to cover annually.
Meanwhile, however, we can compensate for our shortage of scripture savviness by employing another simple discipline as we read and study: When the New Testament quotes an Old Testament passage, turn back to the Old Testament source and read the context of the line or verse or passage being quoted. Oftentimes it turns out that the “verse” being quoted is just the lid on a jewelry box — or sometimes even the entrance into a mine of jewels and precious metals just waiting to be collected!7
Thy Word is like a deep, deep mine;
And jewels rich and rare
Are hidden in its mighty depths
For every searcher there.…
O may I love Thy precious Word,
May I explore the mine…8
Allow me to prove that to you by “opening the lid” that Isaiah 40:3 represents. Let’s pass through the portal, into this Word-mine, and let our eyes adjust to the light. We’re standing in the cavernous, gem-sparkling antechamber that belongs to the New Testament’s most-quoted Old-Testament prophet.9
“Comfort My People” — Isaiah 40:1-2
1“Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God.
2“Speak kindly to Jerusalem;
And call out to her, that her warfare has ended,
That her iniquity has been removed,
That she has received of the Lord’s hand
Double for all her sins.”
Well, now, there’s an encouraging start—the opening words into the largely Messianic portion of Isaiah (chapters 40-66), and God is concerned with comforting His people. What more comforting word can there be than that Messiah is coming! Let’s pry a few “sparklies” out of the wall before we continue on to verse 3:
- “Speak kindly” — literally, speak to the heart.10 This is the level at which God always deals with human beings, the heart. It’s heart-change He seeks.
- “her warfare has ended” — her hard service has ended. What “hard service”? The hard service of sin and rebellion against God, the wages of which are death (Romans 6:23). But even the walk of obedience to God’s Laws was a challenge under the Old Covenant, as Paul details in Romans 7.
- “her iniquity has been removed”11 — the penalty of iniquity is accepted as paid off. When will this “paid off” status come to God’s people? When Messiah has made atonement.
- “she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” These words about sin precede the introduction of “the voice” (i.e., John) in verse 3. That should not surprise us. After all, why did John come? To call people to confess and repent of their sins.
- What more than a few readers will find surprising, though, is that the Lord would require a double punishment. How is that fair? Perhaps the conclusion of one of Jesus’ parables will help clarify:
- 46“…the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers. 47And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, 48but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.”
- Luke 12:46-48
- Israel had been chosen by God Himself to be His people. He had shown Himself to them at Mount Sinai. They had received His Law. God had intervened for them in their national affairs many times. In their perpetual waywardness He had spoken to them repeatedly through His prophets. They “had been given much” and “they knew their Master’s will,” but as a nation they did not “act in accord with His will.” Their punishment, therefore, to use the words of the parable, was “many lashes” — “double for all their sins.” Let the wise and righteous servants of “the One who changes not” draw the obvious parallels to the Church today.
“Prepare the Way of the Lord” — Isaiah 40:3-5
3The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make straight in the desert
A highway for our God.
4Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough places smooth;
5The glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
And all flesh shall see it together;
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
- “The voice of one crying in the wilderness” — I have departed from the text of the New American Standard Bible here for the sake of the word order in verse 3, the better to follow the phrasing of this passage found in all four New Testament citations.13 The original (i.e., Hebrew) text allows two variations on the word order. Your translation may follow the nasb word order: “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness.” That puts “the wilderness’” as part of the declaration rather than as the location of “the voice.”14
- Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God — For this line and those that follow it, we hardly have a point of modern comparison. A king or potentate, especially the head of a great empire like Persia, Assyria, Babylon, or Egypt was all powerful. In his own person he was the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government. His word was law. In an instant, he could have a person exalted or executed on a whim. The general practice was for the ruler to give himself out as a deity, or at least “a son of the gods.” Great care had to be taken not to offend this “god man”; the consequences of his displeasure might be swift and deadly.15
- So, when notice was given that such a sovereign potentate had determined to visit a city or an area of his empire, great care was taken that all be in readiness. That care was expended in many ways, not the least of which was on the route leading to the king’s destination. Roads across great expanses of land were repaired, upgraded, even swept clear of the smallest pebbles, lest the king’s royal conveyance, be it a chariot or litter,16 be jostled en route.
- In an era without telecommunications of any sort, how would the people of a city or province know to prepare their city, their streets, and their approach roads for the visit of their mighty monarch? Messengers! On foot, on horseback, carrying royal pronouncements and boldly proclaiming the upcoming royal visit in every town square and every city gate along the way, the king’s heralds would announce the sovereign’s travel plans. Then the feverish, thorough preparations would begin in anticipation of receiving the emperor and his entourage.
- If this description has helped to paint a historical context, then good. But Isaiah’s message ups the ante. God has determined to visit His people! The Lord, Yahweh of Hosts, the Creator God, the Deliverer from Egypt, the Great King has determined to visit His people! Let the preparations begin in haste and in earnest!
- Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth — If this is a visit from God Most High, this God who is spirit, as Jesus assured us (John 4:24) and “a great King” (Malachi 1:14), then these instructions must be spiritual, these directions aimed at something higher and greater than road improvement and highway construction. This way-preparing picture is a type, an allegory portraying a deeply spiritual preparation. John the Baptist will sum it up in one phrase during his amazingly brief preaching career: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near!”
- To prepare for God’s visit, John will address the valleys of spiritual degradation and poverty, and he will bring low those on the mountains of pride and arrogance by demanding humility and contrition. Against the crooked places in the outward lives and hidden recesses of men’s hearts, he will hold the straightedge, the plumb line of God’s law, insisting that these “crooked places” be made “straight” in preparation for the King’s arrival. Every “rough place” — the known offenses against God and man, the broken relationships — will be made “smooth,” swept clean of anything that might aggrieve the Holy One of Israel, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
- The glory of the Lord shall be revealed — Perhaps the better rendition is found in the marginal note of the nasb, “In order that the glory of the Lord will be revealed.” What is the purpose of all this heart reconstruction? It’s all in order that God’s glory,17 the splendor, the richness, the honored distinction, the weightiness of His presence might be revealed to (and ultimately in) His people. This unveiling of the God of glory isn’t brought about by sacrifices and singing, nor by ceremonies and worship (real or so-called). No, the thing required for the King’s visit, to welcome Him to one’s province or city or hamlet, to put things in order in the desert of the human heart, is preparation. That preparation means leveling, straightening, smoothing the path — everything which can be done, humanly speaking, to prepare the way of the Lord. Only then will God’s glory dwell in the midst of His people.
- And all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Now this is remarkable. God’s chosen, select, separated people, who wanted to be like the other nations, fell under the domination of other nations from about 700 b.c. onwards. Here, in this opening to the second section, the Messianic portion, of Isaiah’s prophetic book, the result of obeying the oracular “voice of one calling in the wilderness,” and preparing the way for the King’s procession is that God’s glory is manifested and all flesh see it together. What does that phrase all flesh mean? The Gentiles! All nations! All people will see God’s glory once God’s people are heart-ready for their King’s arrival.
- In this we see the fulfillment of God’s promise to His servant and friend Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”18 That includes the Gentiles. When will all the Gentiles see God’s glory? At the Second Coming? Yes, perhaps then. But think of the multiplied millions of Gentiles who have come to Christ since Peter was sent to the household of Cornelius in Acts 10. They have discovered what Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles, said that God “willed to make known to them,” that is, “the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
The Shaping of the Message — Isaiah 40:6-8
Let’s not lose sight of our goal. We have come to Isaiah 40 because of the various Gospel references to Isaiah 40:3, and we want to understand the context of the original quotation. Some would quit at verse 5 and feel satisfied, but the prophetic revelation about this “voice in the wilderness” continues for at least three more verses. Consider:
6A Voice says, “Call out.”
Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”
All flesh is grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
8The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.
- A Voice says, “Call out.” Note that I’ve taken the liberty of capitalizing the word Voice. We’ve already seen that same Hebrew word — qôl (קֹול, pronounced kōl) voice, sound — in verse 3: “A qôl / voice of one crying in the wilderness….” We’re introduced to that word in Genesis, when the guilty man and his wife heard the qôl of the Lord God (Genesis 3:8) and hid because of hearing the qôl (v. 10).19
- So the voice (lowercase “v”) — John the Baptist — now hears the other Voice (uppercase “V”) — the Lord God Himself — giving him guidance and instruction as to his message (not unlike Isaiah himself receiving his commission and message from God in Isaiah 6:8-13).
- Then he answered, “What shall I call out?” Think about that for a moment. It means John the Baptist could hear the voice of God. Does that surprise you? Would you expect something less from a prophet, from one filled with the Holy Spirit and set aside to God from his mother’s womb? Listen to John’s testimony to those around him:
- “I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’”
- John 1:33
- All flesh is grass…. The first part of John’s message — Prepare the way of the Lord — seems to have been summed up by his favorite word, namely repent. But as we shall see when we study that favorite verb-command and its noun equivalent, repentance, the word means far more than ceasing to sin and refraining from offending God. The other side of repentance is receiving and embracing a change of mind, of outlook, of worldview from God Himself.20 Part of God’s work in repentance brings us to see that “all flesh is grass”; or, as Paul describes the new viewpoint, no longer do we “look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:8 nkjv).
- The second half of John’s watchword exhortation and theme of his message was “for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Essentially John was saying, “The King is coming. Messiah is at the door. And since it’s true that the Kingdom of heaven21 is soon to be manifested, you need to live focused on the world and life to come, and not on this one.” Earthly life is transitory, over all too soon, and then you face eternity — largely on the basis of your interactions with God in this minute speck of time.
- …and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The nasb marginal note has an interesting alternative reading of loveliness (in Hebrew חֶסֶד / ḥesed, the word rendered as lovingkindness or steadfast love when used of God in the Old Testament). The translators say that an alternate reading is constancy, a word that we don’t use much nowadays. It means dependability, unchangeableness. We live and act as though everything around us is permanent. God’s picture here is quite the opposite: that of a beautiful flower which is “here today, gone tomorrow.”
- Writing as he does in Greek, when Peter (who, before Jesus called him, had been a follower of John the Baptist and his teaching) quotes this passage in 1 Peter 1:24, he substitutes the word δόξα / doxa — glory:
- “All flesh is like grass,
And its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls off…”22
- “All flesh is like grass,
- The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever. This needs no further exposition. Everything of this life, this world, is as fleeting as a daisy in the field. The “Voice” charges the “voice” with driving home to the people this transitoriness, this illusion of permanence. I think the result is John’s “Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” message: Stop sinning in and living for this world, where everything is as transitory as the life of a wildflower. The Apostle John (a man we know had been one of John the Baptist’s disciples) summed it up succinctly: The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:17).
Get Your Own Pickax
Yes, the world as we know it must end — and so must this chapter.
Do you see the reason why we must ask and answer the question, “What’s the context of the Isaiah 40:3 quotation?” Having studied these eight verses, we can better appreciate something of what the penitent audiences of John the Baptist understood when he announced that he was “a voice calling in the wilderness.” We also have a feel for the force of this prophetic passage and how it shaped his ministry, electrified the urgency of his message, and challenged God’s people in their laissez faire lukewarmness about their sin and their eternal destiny.
Are we finished with this passage? For the time being, I am, but I hope you’re not. We could marvel together at the context of even more verses in Isaiah 40, but to do so would rob you of the blessings you could personally appropriate if you dug these jewels out of the mine for yourself. Prayerfully. In God’s presence. With His Book before you. If the labor of digging is yours, the blessing will be more personal and lasting.
Where should you dig here in Context Cavern? Just before we leave the mine, let me point out to you a few valuable gems gleaming in the rock wall, just waiting to be pried out (later) and added to your personal treasure:
- See that one in verse 9? It’s still part of the “voice” / John-the-Baptist context. It’s the revelation of “behold your God.” You’ve seen a gemstone like that in John 1:29 and John 1:36. No fair peeking right now, but remember — the mine is open to you any time you wish to return.
- There’s another big one in verse 10 — reward and recompense. You may need a wheelbarrow for that precious stone, even if you only relate it to the preaching of John the Baptist. That one has a big payoff.
- There’s another one in verse 11. It was a personal favorite of John, Jesus, and King David. David and Jesus will tell you about the Shepherd. John the Baptist will show you that the Shepherd is also God’s sacrificial Lamb. Get your own pickax and pry tools and do your own study.
- Verse 12’s gemstone has so many facets — it’s a Creator Stone! On his way to introducing John the Baptist (John 1:6-36), the Apostle John trots out this breathtaking, awe-inspiring beauty (John 1:3,10).
But not now. Do it later. Now we have to move on from this treasure trove in Isaiah 40 and enter the Malachi Mine.
Thy Word is like a deep, deep mine,
And jewels rich and rare
Are hidden in its mighty depths
For every searcher there.…
- This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book The John the Baptist Experience: Book 1: The Exceptional Messenger; copyright © 2022 by Jim Kerwin. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are taken from New American Standard Bible (nasb) Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, CA. All rights reserved. Used by Permission. www.lockman.org ↩
- Cover: Detail from Mathias Grünewald's altarpiece Crucifixion-scene painting for a church in Isenheim, France (c. 1515). Courtesy of Wikipedia, but copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. The Latin phrase in the “crook” of John's arm declares, “Illum oportet crescere me autem minui,” the Vulgate reading of John 3:30 — “He must increase, I must decrease.” ↩
- In chapter 5 we’ll consider this matter. If John wasn’t Elijah (and he said he wasn’t), why is he called by that name? ↩
- We took at brief look at Moses’ prophecy of “the Prophet” in the last chapter, and we learned that He was none other than Jesus. ↩
- Unless otherwise noted, our primarily English Bible translation throughout the book will be from the New American Standard 1995 translation, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. ↩
- Concerning chapters, there are rare exceptions, most notably the Psalms, that did exist as independent units. ↩
- This point is so important that we develop it further in the “Deeper Dives” section of The John the Baptist Experience. See Deeper Dive #1: Pulling the Mnemonic “Trigger”. ↩
- These words are from Edwin Hodder’s poem, Thy Word Is Like a Garden, Lord, in which the Scriptures are presented in the similes of a garden, a mine, the stars of the universe, and an armory. ↩
- Isaiah is quoted over 50 times, second only to the Psalms (almost 70 quotes), and ahead of Deuteronomy (44 quotations). Of the top-ten most-quoted Old Testament books, three other prophets round out positions 8-10, namely Zechariah (seven times), Jeremiah (five times) and Hosea (also five times). ↩
- In the alternate readings here (and in those that follow), I am quoting directly from alternate translation reading(s) which appear in the NASB translators’ marginal notes. ↩
- Or pardoned, as in the King James translation ↩
- Scriptures marked as nkjv are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ↩
- Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23 ↩
- The explanation of the difference is too long for the text, but here’s an endnote to “scratch the itch” of those of you who wonder about such things, a little “deeper dive.” The niv perhaps gives us the best idea of the word order in the Hebrew: A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Do you see it? That phrase — in the wilderness — comes between the voice “calling” and the command to “prepare the way.” So the translators’ challenge is to decide if Isaiah meant for that phrase in the wilderness to modify “the voice calling” (i.e., explain where the voice was calling) or whether it’s the location of where the preparing should be done. The niv textual note points out the ambiguity that the Hebrew introduces, for the translators readily admit in their side comment that the phrase could just as well have been rendered, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness: / “Prepare the way for the Lord.”
Most modern translations (e.g., asv, cev, esv, gnb, isv, jps, nasb, lbla, and niv) lean towards the “prepare in the wilderness” rendition. I would hazard a guess that they are influenced by their knowledge of the parallelism of the Hebrew poetic form, which would nicely balance “in the wilderness prepare” with “make straight in the desert.” That’s a strong argument worthy of consideration.
However, the older translations (e.g., Bishops, Brenton, Darby, Geneva, nkjv, and hence, the nkjv, as well as the rv60) have, perhaps, a more solid reason for rendering the phrase as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” That reason is that the oldest translation of the Hebrew text — the Greek Septuagint (LXX), translated by Jewish scholars around 200 b.c. — understood the passage to read phōné boōntos en tē erēmō (φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ), a voice crying in the wilderness. Given the extraordinary influence the LXX had on the New Testament writers when they quoted the Old (a fascinating study quite outside the scope of this book), it’s no surprise that all four Gospel writers chose the voice of one crying in the wilderness as their word order of choice.
We can savor the delicious irony in all of this by noting that all of John’s ministry — both his “voice” and the location where his preparation of the people took place — was in the wilderness (Matthew 3:1; 11:7; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:2; 7:24). Thus, prophetically, both translations are equally valid! We have followed the rendition that matches the word order which the Gospel writers unanimously preferred. ↩
- In our modern day, one might look at Kim Jong-un and the veneration (coerced or not) with which he is treated by the North Korean people over which he rules. ↩
- Litter: that is, a sedan chair or palanquin, a seat or even something as elaborate as a small enclosed compartment, not rolled on wheels but born on the shoulders of slaves. ↩
- The word used is not “Shekinah”; that’s not a word found in the Bible, coming to us instead from post-Biblical rabbinic literature. The Old Testament word rendered here (and elsewhere) as glory is כָבוֹד (kāḇôd), the root of which conveys the idea of weight or weightiness. The weight of God’s glorious presence will be revealed! ↩
- Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; Acts 3:25; Galatians 3:8. God repeated the promise to Abraham’s son, Isaac (Genesis 26:4), and to his grandson, Jacob (Genesis 28:14). ↩
- The translations of Genesis 3:8,10 seem split between voice and sound. It makes me wonder, though. How could the Guilty Pair have heard the sound of God walking in the Garden? Was He accidentally breaking branches or snapping fallen, dried twigs as He trod along? God is spirit, Jesus assures us, and there seems to be no indication of an Edenic theophany. No, there was neither twig-snapping nor thunderous divine footfall. Surely they heard a Voice, one that used to delight them in the days of their innocence and purity, but which now terrified their consciences because of its holiness and solemnity. Everything in this Genesis 3:8-19 passage has to do with their interaction with this Voice. ↩
- More on this in Book 2, The Extraordinary Message. ↩
- As we shall see when we study John’s message in the Gospels, the phrases “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of heaven” are synonymous. Matthew employs the latter phrase for reasons we’ll explain in that discussion. ↩
- The translators of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) were even more specific, putting a real point on this ḥesed / loveliness / constancy / glory:
Pasa sarx chórtos,
kai pasa doxa anthrōpou hōs ánthos chórtou
(Πᾶσα σὰρξ χόρτος,
καὶ πᾶσα δόξα ἀνθρώπου ὡς ἄνθος χόρτου) —
“All flesh (i.e., humanity) is like grass,
and all human glory like the flower of grass.” ↩