You may or may not be like me, but I was raised in church, and my parents were at church a lot. Naturally, I learned much about bible characters that may or may not be too helpful for Christian growth, but still the stories do tend to stick. And I was always stuck on the figure of John the Baptist. I was told he was like Elijah the great prophet during the kingdoms of Israel and Judah who had done miraculous things like raising the dead, and making oil and flour last a REALLY long time. Yet, the only correlation I could ever see was the fact that they both wore a leather belt and Elijah was hairy. John apparently wasn’t, so he wore a camel’s hair garment to make himself fit the bill. That should be it right?
After years of distancing myself from things of the Christian faith, God called me to Himself, but that haze returned for this odd man even after deciding to follow Jesus. Now, I will not claim to say that the haze has entirely cleared, but the connections are quite fascinating.
Now John, in similar manner to many great men in the Old Testament, was born to childless parents who received news from God, that they would conceive. He was of the priestly caste, yet God would be calling him to a little bit different path, although his family was definitely devout. The message given to his father by the altar of incense was this, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard,and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord… and he will go forth in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (LUK 1:13-17- parts) So that’s it. Now what does this spirit and power of Elijah thing actually mean?
Now I’m not sure how fruitful it would be to quibble and try to dissect whether the spirit and power is meant to be viewed as one thing(hendiadys) or not. And although I am tempted to try to assign one to each, I will refrain. But it seems to me that as John the Baptist steps on the scene, his message very strongly resonates with Elijah’s in 1 KIN 18:21, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” His call is clear. Get right, because God is coming! The analogy detours some, however, because John is not here having a contest like on Mt. Carmel against prophets of Baal, but against Israelites who would mostly claim to worship Yahweh alone. Especially when you consider his call in Matthew’s account to Pharisees and Sadducees specifically, he is standing up against those who hold the cards for their contemporary worship. So, now, just as in Carmel, the prophet is in the view of all the people against the leadership of Israel, demanding they repent and calling them out on wickedness.
In sequence, it is telling that after the failure of Baal’s prophets, in an all day event to get Baal the Storm god to answer by fire, Elijah seems almost tenderly, to call the people around himself(1 KIN 18:30a). He then proceeds to repair the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down; he takes 12 stones according to the number of Israel’s tribes, and in the way of the patriarchs, builds an altar in the name of the LORD(1 KIN 18:30-32, GEN 12:7, 13:18). In the same way that Elijah takes their thoughts theatrically back to the faith of their ancestors, John too, brings Israel back to a place of reset. This is the Jordan River, the very place where Israel first stepped foot into the much-anticipated promised land. So both men are calling Israel back to pure faith in these deeds. Although there is much that needs to be said of the hearts of fathers and children and reconciliation that will be found through John’s and later Jesus’ ministries; I think it’s necessary first to see this as calling Israel back to its original roots of faith, and being true offspring of Abraham since that is the ultimate goal.
Now after superfluously drenching the sacrifice that he had set up that day, Elijah prays his prayer. There was no cutting himself, wailing, or any jeering from the opponents. Just the words of a man who had set his heart to the God of Israel. “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” The fire consumes everything, the people confess that Yahweh is God, and they slay all the prophets of Baal. Now, I purposefully left out part of the quote from earlier in Gabriel’s description of John in Luke’s gospel. Let’s go back. “..And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.” (LUK 1:15-16) It is no wonder that Jesus would tell people that if they were able to receive it, that John was Elijah who was to come. The altar was prepared, the showdown between God and Beelzebub had been set, now the offering had to be soaked so even the trench would fill, before the fire from the LORD would fall. Is it coincidence that John said himself, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.”?(LUK 3:16)