John the Baptist: In the Spirit and Power of Elijah

By Michael Barber 

Dr. Michael Barber, St. Paul Center Senior Fellow, is Associate Professor of Scripture and Theology at the Augustine Institute. He has served as Dean of the School of Theology at John Paul the Great University in San Diego, where he created and ran a graduate program in Biblical Theology. Dr. Barber holds the Ph.D. in Scripture from Fuller Seminary and earlier studied with Dr. Scott Hahn at Franciscan University. He is the author of Coming Soon: Unlocking the Book of Revelation and Applying Its Lessons Today.

The First Annunciation

In Luke 1 we actually have two annunciations. Most Catholics are familiar with the second, the announcement of the birth of Jesus. Before that however the angel makes an appearance to the priest Zechariah. The similarities are striking—as well as the one major difference!

  • The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah / Mary
  • Addresses Zechariah / “Full of grace”
  • He is “troubled” (1:12) / She is “troubled” (1:29)
  • “Do not be afraid” (1:13) / “Do not be afraid” (1:30)
  • “you shall call his name John” (1:13) / “you shall call his name Jesus” (1:31)
  • “How shall I know this?” / “How will this be?”
  • Fails to believe / “Let it be done unto me. . .”

Sanctified in the Womb

In the announcement of his birth we hear that, “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). This is a striking statement—even as an unborn child John the Baptist would receive the Holy Spirit. This of course plays out in the narrative in the story of the visitation:

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! (Luke 1:41–42)

Notice, being filled with the Holy Spirit here is associated with a confession of faith, Elizabeth’s. However, given that John is said to be filled with the Spirit even from his mother’s womb and given that he leaps inside of her at the arrival of the Mother of the Messiah, it seems clear that his action is best understood as a kind of evidence of faith as well.

Indeed, this was recognized as early as Origen (here the podcast on Origen here):

“Elizabeth, who was filled with the Holy Spirit at that moment, received the Spirit on account of her son. The mother did not inherit the Holy Spirit first. First John, still enclosed in her womb, received the Holy Spirit. Then she too, after her son was sanctified, was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Homilies on the Gospel of Luke 7.3)

Because of this the fathers of the church such as Ambrose recognized that the John the Baptist was given the gift of grace even while still in utero. In short, John was understood to have been sanctified in the womb.

A New Jeremiah: Consecrated in the Womb

Does this seem far-fetched? Not from a biblical perspective. The same thing is said about another Old Testament prophet: Jeremiah. The Lord explains, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5) Of course, St. Paul talks about how Abraham was “justified” by his faith in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah we have another Old Testament figure that was “sanctified”. Although, here we have something truly special—he was consecrated in his mother’s womb.

This of course highlights in a particular way the gratuity of salvation. As Paul explains,

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— 9 not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8-9).

Even before he had done anything, God consecrated Jeremiah (cf. Rom 9:11-12). For more on this, see Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae III, q. 27 (here).

Jeremiah’s Prophetic Signs

Jeremiah in fact is an especially important Old Testament prophet. In some ways, his entire life was a sign of faith. Scholars recognize the many prophetic signs he performed.* He didn’t simply speak the Word of the Lord, he lived it. Consider just a few of his prophetic actions in the account of his life in Scripture:

  1. He wears a waistcloth, buries it and digs it back up, symbolizing Israel’s corruption, sin and humiliation (cf. Jer 13:1–11)
  2. He is celibate: symbolizing God’s judgment on Israel and his separation from wicked Israel (cf. Jer 16:1–4)
  3. He refashions a spoiled vessel, pointing to God’s willingness to forgive and remake Israel (cf. Jer 18:1–12)
  4. He breaks a pot to symbolize the irrevocable divine decree of judgment (cf. Jer 19:1–13)
  5. He takes a cup from the Lord and gives it to the nations to drink, symbolizing coming judgment (cf. Jer 25:15–29)
  6. He makes and wears yokes, announcing that the Babylonians are coming to conquer Jerusalem and take the people away as slaves (cf. Jer 27:1–28:17)
  7. He purchases a field to indicate God’s promise of a future restoration (cf. Jer 32:1–15)
  8. He rewrites a scroll after the king destroys it to show that God’s words endure (cf. Jer 36:1–32).
  9. He hides stones in the mortar used for Pharaoh’s palace as a sign that the Babylonian king will conquer Egypt (cf. Jer 43:8–13).
  10. He writes about the coming judgment upon Babylon in a book and tells Seraiah to read from it in Babylon and throw it into the Euphrates (cf. Jer 51:59–64) to demonstrate that the exile had been foretold!

Jeremiah as a New Moses

Indeed, Jeremiah is described as a New Moses, as Dale Allison shows. His calling in Jeremiah 1 in many ways mirrors the calling of Moses in Exodus 3.

  1. Both complain that they are not good speakers (Jer 1:6; Exod 4:10).
  2. Both are told “you shall speak all that I command you” (Jer 1:7; Exod 7:2).
  3. Both are comforted by being told that God will be with them (Jer 1:8; Exod 3:12).
  4. Both are told that the Lord’s words will be in their mouth (Jer 1:9; Deut 18:18).

The list goes on and on.

Jeremiah then is a kind of New Moses. It is no wonder then that he predicts the coming of a New Covenant, using language of a New Exodus:

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:31–33)

When God’s people looked for deliverance, Jeremiah was not far from their mind. This is evident in 2 Maccabees. There we read about a mysterious appearance of Jeremiah who is credited with giving the sword to Judas Maccabeus that he used to defeat Israel’s enemies. As Onias the high priest is praying over the people, he spots none other than Jeremiah in the crowd:

Onias, who had been high priest, a noble and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who spoke fittingly and had been trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews. 13 Then likewise a man appeared, distinguished by his gray hair and dignity, and of marvelous majesty and authority. 14 And Onias spoke, saying, “This is a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city, Jeremiah, the prophet of God.” 15 Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judas a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: 16 “Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which you will strike down your adversaries.” (2 Macc 15:12–16)

John the Baptist and the New Exodus

Not surprisingly, John the Baptist evokes New Exodus imagery himself. Look at the language describing his ministry in Matthew 3:

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way (Gk. hodos) of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Matt 3:1–3)

Here John is seen quoting from Isaiah’s famous New Exodus prophecy. As in the Exodus, God is preparing a way, in Greek, a hodos (note: ex-hodos means the “way out”) in the wilderness.

John the Baptist and Elijah

In addition, John the Baptist is linked to another figure who, like Jeremiah, was linked both to Moses and to Israel’s future deliverance: Elijah. This connection is evident in Luke 1, in which his birth is announced.

And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him 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.” (Luke 1:16–17)

In fact, in Matthew 3, John the Baptist is described as essentially wearing the costume of the Old Testament prophet:

“Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matt 1:4)

In 1 Kings we discover, “[Elijah] wore a garment of haircloth, with a girdle of leather about his loins” (2 Kgs 1:8).

Elijah as a New Moses

Elijah, like Jeremiah, was described as a New Moses figure.*** It makes sense that a figure announcing the New Exodus—John the Baptist—would be linked to Elijah. Consider some of the following ways Elijah mirrors Moses’ life and ministry. I could compile quite a list. Let me just name a few points of contact here.

  1. He upheld Mosaic religion and cult against Baal worship
  2. He went into exile after angering the King (Ahab) (1 Kgs 17:1–7; cf. Exod 2:11–15 where Moses goes into exile)
  3. He miraculously provided “bread” and “meat” in the morning and in the evening in the wilderness (cf. 1 Kgs 17:6; cf. Exod 16 where Moses provides the manna).
  4. He gathered Israel at a mountain (Carmel) where God’s power is revealed in fire (1 Kgs 18:19; cf. Exod 19:17 where Moses leads Israel to Sinai)
  5. He combats false prophets of Baal (cf. 1 Kgs 18:20–40; cf. Moses vs. Magicians, Exod 7:8–13, 20–22, 8:1–7)
  6. He intercedes for idolatrous Israel, appealing to God of “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (1 Kgs 18:36–38; cf. Moses’ intercession for Israel after the sin of the golden calf Exod 32:11–14)  li>He repairs the altar of the Lord at Mt. Carmel taking 12 stones symbolizing Israel (1 Kgs 18:30–32; cf. Exod 24:4: Moses erects altar with twelve pillars at Mt. Sinai)
  7. He calls down fire to consume the sacrifices. Notice the parallels here!
    1. “Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God” (1 Kings 18:38–39).
    2. “Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings. 23 And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting; and when they came out they blessed the people, and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. 24 And fire came forth from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat upon the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces” (Lev 9:22–24).
  8. Elijah commands idolaters to be slain (1 Kgs 18:40; cf. Exod 32:25–29: Moses commands Levites to kill those who worshipped the golden calf)
  9. After slaying idolaters Elijah goes up to Sinai/Horeb and fasts for forty days and forty nights in the (1 Kgs 19:8; Exod 32:28: Moses also fasts at Sinai/Horeb).
  10. Elijah is (re-)commissioned at Horeb (1 Kgs 19; cf. Exod 3: Moses is commissioned at the burning bush)
  11. Elijah was in a cave when the Lord “passed by” (1 Kgs 19:9–11; cf. Moses in Exod 33:21–23)
  12. On Horeb/Sinai there is a theophany with storm, wind and an earthquake (1 Kgs 19:11–12; cf. Exod 19:16–20 and Deut 4:11; 5:22–27: at Sinai “wind, earthquake, fire”)
  13. Elijah becomes depressed and “asked that he might die” (1 Kgs 19:1–14; cf. Num 11:1-15: Moses also prayed for death to come)
  14. Elijah called down fire from heaven to consume his enemies (2 Kgs 1:9–12; cf. Num 16 and Lev 10:1–3: fire consumes Moses’ enemies)
  15. Elijah parts the Jordan: “the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground” (2 Kgs 2:8). Compare with Exodus 14:21-22: “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” (Exod 14:21–22)
  16. Elijah appointed a successor who resembled him and split the Jordan (2 Kgs 2; cf. Moses appoints Joshua)
  17. People thought Moses might still be alive, cast “upon some mountain or into some valley” (2 Kgs 2:9–18; cf. Deut 34:6: Moses died mysteriously and no one knew the place he was buried).

In short, Elijah is a New Moses. As I will explain, this is significant as it relates to understanding John the Baptist’s role in the Synoptic Gospels.

Elijah and the Restoration of Israel

As I mentioned, like Jeremiah, Elijah was linked to Israel’s future hopes for deliverance. Malachi describes the way “Elijah” will come before the eschatological age—i.e., the messianic age.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” (Mal 4:5)

Sirach also speaks of Elijah in similar terms:

“you [Elijah] who are ready at the appointed time, it is written, to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.” (Sir 48:10).

Notice the similarities here with the angel’s description of John to his father Zechariah in Luke: “he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children”.

Not surprisingly then John is identified by Jesus as Elijah. This is made explicit in Matthew after the Transfiguration. The disciples wonder at Jesus’ eschatological language, asking, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” (Matt 17:10). Jesus replies,

“Elijah does come, and he is to restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. (Matt 17:9-13).

John’s Baptism and the Essenes

In fact, it appears that John had his finger on the pulse of first century Judaism. As the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal, there were many Jews who were thinking eschatologically, preparing for the coming of the messianic age.

Interestingly enough, the Jews at Qumran, apparently used language and performed rites similar to John the Baptist. For instance, in a striking parallel to the speech of John the Baptist recorded in the New Testament, we read in one Dead Sea Scroll text:

“When such men as these come to be in Israel, conforming to these doctrines, they shall separate from the session of perverse men to go to the wilderness, there to prepare the way of truth, as it is written, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ [Is. 40:3]” (1QS 6:12-16).

Likewise, we know that the Essene community, which is most likely to be identified in some way with the community who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, practices ritual washing, symbolizing cleansing from impurity and entrance into the New Covenant community. Whether John had direct contact with the Essene community is impossible to know. But we do see John announcing something that many were apparently looking for: the dawning of the messianic age.

Of course, the New Testament points to John’s baptism as only a foreshadowing of Christian baptism. In Acts of the Apostles, Jesus explains after his resurrection to the apostles, “for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). Likewise, Paul explains to those who had only received John’s baptism the need to receive Christian baptism, through which they receive the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 19:1–7).

Elijah and Elisha, John and Jesus

Given that Jesus comes after John, it is also worth noting something else about Elijah: he was followed by Elisha. After Elijah is taken up by a heavenly chariot at the River Jordan, Elisha receives a “double-portion” of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kgs 2:9–15). He in fact becomes a figure much like Elijah, performing several miracles reminiscent of his mentor.**** For example,

  1. Like Elijah, Elisha works a miracle making oil last indefinitely (cf. 1 Kgs 17:8–16; 2 Kgs 4:1–7).
  2. Like Elijah, Elisha parts the waters of the Jordan (cf. 2 Kgs 2:8, 13).
  3. Like Elijah, Elisha raises a child from the dead (1 Kgs 17:17–24; 2 Kgs 4:32–37)

Yet it is worth noting that, Elisha’s miracles are more numerous and impressive!***** He is the only figure other than Moses to cure leprosy (cf. Num 12; 2 Kgs 5). Likewise, whereas Elijah feeds the widow and her son, Elisha feeds a hundred men with ten loaves (cf. 2 Kgs 4:22–24).

If that last miracle sounds reminiscent of a miracle of Jesus, it should. Scholars recognize that Jesus feeding of the five thousand mirrors Elisha’s miracle of feeding a hundred men with only ten loaves. Consider the parallels between 2 Kgs 4:22-24 and Matt 14:15-21:

  1. Bread plus another item is brought to Elisha / Jesus
  2. Jesus / Elisha instruct their servant / disciples to give the bread to the crowds.
  3. The servant of Elisha / the apostles of Jesus protest that there is not enough food for everyone.
  4. The people eat and food is left over.

Notably, that miracle follows on the heels of the account of John’s death in Matthew 14 and Mark 6. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Like Elisha receives a double spirit of Elijah’s spirit at the Jordan, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, where the Holy Spirit descends upon him.

John is therefore the final prophetic figure, the final messenger, announcing the coming of the Messiah. He, in a sense, is the last of the “Old Testament” prophets—though clearly he is described in the New Testament. Thus Jesus describes him as marking the end of an era in Matthew’s Gospel:

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matt 11:11–14).

John is the greatest of the messengers sent by the Lord. Yet the New Covenant surpasses the Old. Those who are least in the Kingdom are greater than John. What does that mean about the dignity and importance of the vocation to the Christian life?! Quite a lot I suspect. But I suppose that is something best taken to prayer.

*On prophetic signs, see W. D. Stacey, Prophetic Drama in the Old Testament (London: Epworth, 1990); Kelvin G. Friebel, Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s Sign Acts: Rhetorical Nonverbal Communication (JSOTSup 283; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999). Here I am especially dependent on the work of Scot McKnight. See his, “Jesus and Prophetic Actions,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 10/2 (2000): 201–22. (Back to Article)

** Dale Allison, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 53–60.

*** The most comprehensive overview of the parallels is found in Allison, The New Moses, 39-50. See also R. A. Carlson, “Élie à l’Horeb,” VT 19 (1969): 432; P. Josef Kastner, Moses im Neuen Testament (Munich: Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, 1967), 30; Frank M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epoch (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard, 1973), 192; G. Coats, “Healing and the Moses Traditions,” in Canon, Theology, and Old Testament Interpretation (Tuck, G. M., et al eds.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, 136; R. P. Carroll, “The Elijah-Elisha Sagas: Some Remarks on Prophetic Succession in Ancient Israel,” VT 19 (1969): 411; G. Fohrer, Elia (ATANT 53; Zürich: Zwingli, 1957), 57); R. D. Nelson, First and Second Kings (Atlanta: John Knox, 1987), 128; Laurence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 301. Many of the similarities between the two figures were spelled out in detail by R. Tanhuma (Pesiq. Rab. 4:2). (Back to Article)

**** For a fuller discussion of the relationship between Elijah and Elisha as well as the literary unity of the narrative in 1-2 Kings see the great discussion and the plethora of references in Thomas Brodie, The Crucial Bridge: The Elijah-Elisha Narrative as an Interpretive Synthesis of Genesis Kings and a Model for the Gospels (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 1-27 (Back to Article)

*****See Colin Brown, “Miracles,” in vol. 3 of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (4 vols; G. W. Bromiley, ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 373, who explains that after Elisha receives a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit, we read about “miracles greater and more numerous than those performed by Elijah.” Here he sees more than the Elijah-Elisha succession, but also Moses-Joshua (see below). See also Paul J. Kissling, Reliable Characters in the Primary History: Profiles of Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha (JSOTSSup 224; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 192: “The miracles which Elisha performed are far greater in number than those which Elijah performed.” (Back to Article)

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