The oracles of a prophet seem like such a mysterious and radical concept. It’s the kind of wild, supernatural work of God that we usually try leave behind in our modern world. It’s just a little too “out there” and uncomfortable. But imagine if you were the prophet…seeing veiled and semi-whole visions of the future that you are meant to convey to the people of this dying world. Imagine knowing that many or most people won’t believe you or heed your warnings.
Isaiah was one of the great prophets of the Old Testament. He gave us some of the most magnificent and heart rending oracles about the coming Messiah. He also foretold about the ministry of John the Baptist. This is what he said:
“Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low,
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all mankind will see God’s salvation.”
Have you ever hiked an extremely high mountain or a deep valley? Imagine how much easier it would have been if the deep valleys were filled in and made flat just for you. What if God had reached down and lowered the mountains to make them easier to climb? That was what John’s message was meant to do for the coming Messiah. It was as if there was journey through each person’s heart for the Messiah to travel, and John’s work was to preach a message of repentance to create a path for it.
The problems of human stubbornness, pride, and rebellion are much more daunting obstacles than climbing the highest of mountain peaks. Think about all the ways people sin against what is good and right. Think about all the ways humans abuse, betray, and hurt each other. That’s what John the Baptist was up against! He had the job of letting the people know that it was time to deal with the mountains and valleys in their hearts that created obstacles to God. They didn’t need to become perfect, but they did need to repent. It was the way they could make themselves ready for the coming of the Savior.
As John preached the Word of the Lord, crowds began to come out to meet him. Rumors about his powerful message spread. Soon, people came from Jerusalem, the region of Judea, and the whole area surrounding the Jordan River Valley. They were travelling from miles and miles away to listen to the radical preacher dressed in camel skins. Imagine how the people of the villages and towns and cities must have been talking. Think about the rumors that were whispered in Herod’s palace and the courts of the Temple. Who was this man in the desert, and what did it mean?
Many came knowing their need to repent and be baptized. They knew they were sinners and deeply desired to be cleansed of their shame and made right with God. Their humility was beautiful to Him. Others came to see what all the excitement was about. Some religious leaders came to see the wild young preacher at work. Did his words honor the Word of the Most High God? Could it be that he was a prophet like God’s messengers in the past?
Other leaders came because John’s powerful message threatened their own positions of power. They wanted to check out the competition. They weren’t concerned about whether John was speaking for God. They wanted to make sure he didn’t mess with their plans. These religious leaders used the sacred things of God to build themselves up in the world of men, and John could be a hindrance to their ambitions.
For everyone who came to hear him preach, John offered the same, simple message: it was time for them to deal seriously with their sin. Everyone had important reasons to repent. They would each know in the quiet places of their hearts the sins that God was calling them reject and turn away from. Many of the people were cut to the core of their hearts. They cried out to John in repentant sorrow. They asked him what they should do to change. A pathway for Christ was being prepared within them.
As they stood by the banks of the Jordan River, John answered the people with very practical things they could do. He said that anyone who had two tunics should share his extra with the person who had no tunic at all. Wow. God was calling them to a very extravagant generosity. Anything extra they had, even an extra shirt, was to be used to help those in need. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived this way? What are the costs because we don’t? And who is having to bear them?
When some tax collectors came to him for baptism, he told them they had to stop taking extra money from the people. The tax collectors of that time were famous for taking more than the people owed and keeping the extra for themselves. They made themselves rich by demanding far more than what was fair. It was a terrible sin, but it was a way of life for them. John demanded that they change their whole way of doing business. It meant giving up a lot of money and the life of wealth that money can buy. It meant loving God and righteousness more than they loved being comfortable or having lots of things. But they would gain a much more precious treasure. They would have a right relationship with the Lord and the deep, abiding peace that comes with a purified heart. Those are priceless gifts that money cannot buy. They would gain the deep strength and joy of standing in righteousness. They would know themselves to have honored God, and that knowledge gives life!
As soldiers came out to the Jordan for baptism, John told them they had to quit using their power to demand money from the people. Roman soldiers had a reputation for falsely accusing people of crimes they didn’t do. Often, innocent people were threatened with punishment. It was a shameful practice, and the Jewish people had no way to protect themselves. They had to pay the soldiers large sums just to protect themselves from false charges. John told the soldiers that they had to repent and stop extorting money from the people.
Imagine how uncomfortable and painful it was for the soldiers to have their sins exposed so boldly. Imagine how much purifying strength John’s boldness gave them to change! Imagine how the Jewish people must have felt to hear that God was angered by the abuse! The Lord saw everything, and He is always protective of the innocent. He knew exactly who was truly guilty and shameful. In His wonderful grace, He came to the soldiers and tax collectors through John and gave them a chance to be different. These practices were so normal that they probably couldn’t have imagined it before. And as the people repented of their sins, John baptized them in cleansing water.
Imagine what it meant for the villages and towns of Israel as the people began to give generously to the poor? Imagine how different life felt when the oppressive soldiers and tax collectors returned home with a totally new way of treating people? God’s laws and rebukes do not come because He likes to control and manipulate. God is just. His ways are straight and true. He knows just how much suffering and destruction that injustice causes, and He hates it. He sent John the Baptist to speak to the hearts of men and women and give them a chance to be on the side of good. It was through those choices that a way was forged in their hearts for the coming Savior.
Isaiah 40 starts of with a prophecy about the last prophet of Israel before the Messiah would come. Isaiah 40 ends with amazing words of confirmation of God’s amazing presence for those who wait on the Lord: