“Learn to do good, seek justice, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow: ‘come now and let us reason together’, says Yahweh; though your sins be as scarlet they shall become as white as snow” (Isaiah1:17,18)
I recall the above as a favourite sermon text from my Evangelical preaching days – verse 18 that is, less so the verse preceding it. The typical gloss has been to disassociate God’s offer of forgiveness from its conditionality: the pursuit of individual righteousness resulting in corporate social justice amongst His people (v17). Eight or so centuries after Isaiah a still greater prophet came on to the scene – Jesus considered John the Baptist to be the greatest man yet born of woman (Mt11:11), yet little attention has been paid to his preaching. In accordance with what I have been indicating in earlier posts, John will have understood that the realisation of the Messianic Kingdom and the judgement associated with it really were at hand: “And now the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree that fails to bring forth good fruit is to be hewn down and cast into the fire” (Mt3:10). People, he believed, needed to “prepare for the wrath to come” and obtain forgiveness through baptism. But like God speaking through Isaiah before him he was careful to insist that the acknowledgement of past error must be accompanied by the pursuit of personal righteousness: “Share your food and raiment with the needy; be honest in business and be content with your wages” (Luke3:10-14). Likewise, a little later we observe Jesus delighted with tax collector Zacchaeus when he declared he would pay back those he had swindled: “Today salvation has come to this house”, He declared (Lk19:8-10). Such is the nature of repentance, and Paul (once rightly understood) taught nothing to subvert that principle.
Speaking of the Baptist, his birth like that of his Master was heralded with an angelic annunciation:
“And (John) will bring back many of the ‘Israelites’ to the lord their God. with the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before (Christ) to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the lord a people fit for him” (Lk1:16-17)
But did John in fact fulfil that expectation? In what meaningful sense did he reconcile fathers and children? If you imagine that referred to healing family relationships, then his work was about to be thoroughly undermined by the One he was heralding: Jesus had warned His coming would have the effect of tearing families apart! (Mt10:35). As for God’s chosen people being made ready for their Messiah in John’s day, nothing could be further from the truth (Mt17:12). Likewise, there is no meaningful sense in which John as the “Elijah” restored everything before he was beheaded. Hear the words of Christ again: “ELIJAH TRULY SHALL COME FIRST IN ORDER TO RESTORE ALL THINGS” (Elias men erchetai proton kai apokatastesai panta – Mt17:11 Greek text). So, whilst a messenger HAS already come in the person of John, God’s chosen nation accepted neither him nor the One he heralded as Jesus affirmed in the very next verse (Mt17:12b). As He said: “If you can receive (him), then John is the Elijah to come” – but neither John nor Jesus were received by God’s chosen race, particularly their leaders. Apart from which, given that the purpose of the final prophet is to prepare the Lord’s people for their Messiah and final judgement, the reconciliation and restoration that the prophet is to achieve must relate to the generation that lives to see the “great and awesome day of the Lord” (Mal4:5-6*). Through what I describe in shorthand as the Fellowship of the Secret that Paul refers to in Eph3:9, that wasn’t to be the generation of John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostles. My book also suggests who the “fathers and children” to be reconciled may be referring to – for, after all, it does in part concern the reconciliation of the churches.
*Mal3:22-23 in Catholic editions
Illustration: Icon of Elijah at Kizhi monastery – courtesy of wikipedia