Prophet of the Most High
In Luke 1:5-25, an angel of the Lord tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth are to have a baby after years of infertility. But not just any baby! “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God,” the angel declares. “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17, NRSV).
In his 2013 article in Neotestamentica, Clint Burnett looks closely at the Lukan portrait of John the Baptist as “eschatological prophet of restoration.” It will be worth the time working through that article to explore the details of this description as Burnett identifies them. Burnett begins by noting that the Lukan author is careful to distinguish John from “Elijah reborn.” John will have the spirit and power of Elijah, which is different from being Elijah.
Burnett notes that we might expect the detailed dating offered by the Lukan author to precede the onset of Jesus’ ministry. The fact that it comes before John’s ministry “uniquely highlights the importance of John’s ministry” (page 4). This historical anchoring also identifies John as a prophet, just as prophets in the Hebrew scriptures were often described in terms of the reigns during which the word of the Lord came to them.
In addition, the dating introduces the majority of the antagonists who will be part of the narrative. And this dating, according to Burnett, creates a sense of literary irony. I would observe that this irony comes from the fact that the reader knows the two-level understanding of history upon which the Lukan author relies. Readers are aware, Burnett points out, that God has already begun the Great Reversal described in the Magnificat. “As a result,” he writes, “Luke encourages readers to form a negative opinion of the rulers…and see them as antagonistic forces throughout his work” (page 5).
It is the connection to the spirit and power of Elijah that marks John out as one of the great prophets of old. Burnett notes that the documents of Second Temple Judaism (especially the Wisdom of Sirach 48) connect Elijah to the restoration of Israel. It is helpful to be reminded that this restoration is one of the themes and concerns of the Lukan author.
After all, this is the question the disciples ask just prior to the Ascension – is now the time when you will restore Israel? And this is the hope of the two walkers to Emmaus – that Jesus would have been the one to redeem Israel. The extended attention to John the Baptizer demonstrates that the Restoration of Israel is precisely what is at stake in the Lukan gospel – just not in the way that people expected.
The Lukan author is concerned to make sure that we connect John to and place him “in the wilderness.” We get that notice first in Luke 1:80, and it is then picked up in Luke 3:2. For the Lukan author the wilderness, according to Burnett, is a positive place. It is the place where prophets are called, where a deeper relationship with God can be cultivated, where both Moses and Elijah were called into service, and where Elijah experienced his “second” call while fleeing from the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel (page 9).
In addition, Burnett notes, the wilderness is sometimes the place the prophets see as the location for the eschatological renewal of God’s people. The wilderness motif lends itself to seeing events in the gospel as a sort of new Exodus, the place where Israel would rely solely on the Lord. This is certainly true in the words both of Hosea and Ezekiel. It is also made manifest in the community life and literature of the Qumran community (pages 9-10).
The Lukan author expands the Marcan quotation from Isaiah 40 in describing John’s ministry. Second Isaiah, in the Septuagint translation, depicts a voice crying out in the wilderness and declaring that a New Exodus is about to begin. It appeared to many later readers that this New Exodus had not been fully accomplished. So, many were still waiting for that fulfillment, including any number of the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures.
“According to Luke’s use of Isaiah,” Burnett writes, “the wait is over, and John is the voice that begins the new exodus…” (page 15). The language of preparing the way is particularly filled with meaning for Lukan readers, according to Burnett. It points back to the language in Luke 1:17 about how John will prepare a people for the Lord and to Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1:76 that John will prepare the Lord’s ways. Remember that Luke, like all the gospel writers, plays on the ambiguity of the use of “Lord” here and allows it to refer to God and Jesus.
Burnett notes, as do numerous others, that references to the “way” in the Lukan account will always take us to the Book of Acts and the label which the early Jesus followers chose for themselves – “The Way.” This continues in the extended Isaiah quotation, where the “ways” will be made smooth for the coming of the Lord.
The Lukan author extends the quotation primarily, Burnett suggests, to make sure we hear that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” He argues that this supports the universal scope of the Lukan gospel. In the Song of Simeon, Jesus is identified as the salvation of God for all peoples – enlightenment to the Gentiles and glorification for Israel (Luke 2:30-32).
“It is only as the narrative of Luke-Acts unfolds,” Burnett writes, “that this promise comes to fruition as the gospel is taken to Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles” (page 18). This emphasis shows up at the beginning of the Lukan Gospel account. It makes a final appearance, Burnett notes, In Acts 28:24, where Paul is portrayed as taking the “salvation of God” to the Gentiles in Rome. “Therefore, Luke’s promise of a universal mission to both Jews and Gentiles,” Burnett writes, “forms an inclusio that begins, not with Jesus, but with the eschatological prophet of restoration, John, and his preparation of the way…which results in the salvation of God coming to all flesh” (page 19).
Burnett argues that John’s role as eschatological prophet of the restoration of Israel is not incidental to the Lukan account but rather is essential to that account. John’s work of preparation is indispensable as the bridge from the Hebrew scriptures to the Gospel mission. The Lukan author demonstrates not only a deep concern for that connection but an encyclopedic knowledge of those scriptures and their meaning for God’s plan. In spite of the importance of John as prophet, he is clearly not the Messiah. The way the Lukan author tells the story makes this obvious (page 20).
What can we as preachers do with this close analysis? First, we can seek to imitate the careful way that the Lukan author outlines the relationship between the people of Israel and the Church. The Lukan perspective is not one of replacement or supersession. It is, rather, a hope for the fulfillment of the mission of Israel in and through the life of the Church. While the Lukan author pays close attention to the mission to the Gentiles, the framework for that mission is always the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel.
Some of us Christian preachers simply don’t believe that and thus regard the Church as the “success” and Israel as the “failure.” The consequences of that theological aberration in the history of the Church have been and continue to be deadly for Jews. In the Lukan view, the mission of the Gentiles is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel – the promise to be a blessing to the entire cosmos.
The historical grounding of John’s ministry reminds us that “the revolutionary kingdom of God will not be buried in a corner of history,” as Fred Danker put it in Jesus and the New Age (page 43). There is no actual division in the Lukan account between “sacred history” and “secular history.” Instead, these are two different lenses on the same reality. The same can be said, by the way, about Martin Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” theology. Again, the two kingdoms are not separate realms but rather simply different ways of describing the one Reality.
Thus, the unfolding of the Gospel occurs within history as well as beyond history. With discerning eyes, we can peer underneath the surface and glimpse the mystery of God’s unfolding plan (once in a while and in a glass dimly). Artificial distinctions, such as that between religion and politics or theology and ideology, have no place in the Lukan understanding of how God operates in and through the cosmos.
And this unfolding is universal in scope as well as action. All flesh shall see the salvation of our God. Here the Lukan author adds to Isaiah 40 with an allusion to Isaiah 52:10 (NRSV) – “The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” The Good News of Jesus shall be proclaimed in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Thus, the Lukan account is radically inclusive. And this radical inclusion is the fulfillment of the mission of Israel. John, as the bridge between the eras, launches this mission of restoration with a call to repentance.
References and Resources
Burnett, Clint. “Eschatological Prophet of Restoration: Luke’s Theological Portrait of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-6.” Neotestamentica, vol. 47, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 2013, pp. 1–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43048893.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.
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