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Prior to the Jewish revolt, at least some Jewish writers thought the people of Israel would be reassembled as the twelve tribes of Israel. The Diaspora will end and Jews will return to the Promised Land. Isaiah 40-66 anticipated a kind of new exodus. God would call his people out of their long exile among the nations are gather them back to the Land promised to Abraham. The newly assembled Israel would rebuild the cities populate the Land as they should have after the Exodus. The land will be central to the true worship of God.
Isaiah 40:1–2 (ESV) Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Jerusalem is like a woman who has lost her husband and is in need of comfort; she is inconsolable at the loss of her spouse. God will comfort her with “tender words.” The word “to comfort” is a strongly emotional term. It is used in Gen 37:35, after Jacob learns Joseph is dead he is so upset no one is able to comfort him. The word also appears in Job 2:11, the three friends attempt to comfort Job after his losses. The means by which this comforting occurs is through “tender words” (NIV), literally, “speak to her heart.” Heart is more than emotions, this may indicate that some were intellectually devastated, in doubt, wondering of the Lord would still keep his covenant. But this word has strong connotations of emotions, almost seduction.
In Isaiah 40 the Lord says three things to Jerusalem to comfort this distraught widow:
Her hard service is over. The word for service is used for the levitical cycle of service, it is a regular time with well-defined beginning and end. But it can also mean military service, therefore many translations have “her warfare is over.” The suffering of the exile is a “prisoner of war” situation, the time seen by this text is when Israel is safe and no longer under the threat of warfare.
Her sin is paid for. This is a phrase which appears in the passive in connection with blood sacrifice (Leviticus 1:4; 7:18; 19:7; 22:23, 25, 27); the idea is that the Lord has accepted the exile as a sacrifice as a payment for the nations sin.
She has received a double from the Lord’s hand for all her sins. This does not mean that she has been double punished, but rather that the Lord has paid the penalty twice over.
These opening words in the second half of Isaiah are therefore a prophecy of the gathering of the exiles back to the Land of Israel. When the exile finally ends, God will do something which will atone for Israel’s sins which resulted in the Exile in the first place. Although this prophecy begins to be fulfilled as early as 539 B.C., when the exile officially ends, Israel is not completely restored to Jerusalem and they are never free from warfare – nor could we say that the sins of the nation were paid for at that time.
There hint of the ultimate fulfillment comes from Daniel 9, where we are told after 70 years in captivity that the exile will continue for “seventy sevens of years,” or 490 years altogether. This is what the Jews of the first century were looking for when John the Baptist and Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was near.
As N. T. Wright has said many times, Jews living in the first century knew the prophecy of Daniel 9 was nearing an end and they were fervently looking forward to the gathering of Jews living in the Diaspora to return to Zion and worship in Jerusalem once again. Even in Sirach (who was no wide-eyed apocalypticist), there is a hope for this gathering of all the tribes to the land of their inheritance. Closer to the first century, The Psalms of Solomon give evidence of this belief as well.
Sirach 36:12–16 (NRSV) Crush the heads of hostile rulers who say, “There is no one but ourselves.” 13 Gather all the tribes of Jacob, 16 and give them their inheritance, as at the beginning.
Sirach 48:10 (NRSV) Sirach 36:12–13 (NRSV) Crush the heads of hostile rulers who say, “There is no one but ourselves.” 13 Gather all the tribes of Jacob.
Psalms of Solomon 11:2-4 Stand on a high place, Jerusalem, and look at your children, from the east and the west assembled together by the Lord. From the north they come in the joy of their God; from far distant islands God has assembled them. He flattened high mountains into level ground for them; the hills fled at their coming.
It is therefore little wonder people were interested in a Jewish teacher who selected twelve disciples and talked of the soon-to-appear Kingdom of God. Jesus sent the twelve out to gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel to a lonely place where he fed them with miraculous bread. Jesus was intentionally enacting the gathering of Israel out of the Exile during his ministry.
When John the Baptist is asked who he is, his answer is a series of confessions concerning who he is not (1:20-21). He confesses freely that he is not a messianic figure in such a way that leaves no question, although he does claim to be another kind of harbinger of the messianic age. John is presented at the beginning of this gospel as a witness who was completely honest in his testimony. It is possible that the gospel writer intended John’s three-fold testimony to stand in contrast to Peter’s three fold denial (John 18:17, 25, 27). John the Baptist also denied things, but in his case he was telling the truth!
Not only does the writer state John’s honest testimony in three ways, he confesses three things that he is not (the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet). John’s threefold denial of being the messiah is very broad, covering a variety of messianic expectations in the Second Temple Period.
I am not the Christ. The title is messiah, and many Jewish people in the first century expected some kind of an ultimate son of David to appear and re-establish a kingdom in Jerusalem. There was no one expectation, in fact, Qumran expected two messiahs. 4 Ezra expected a messiah who would rule for 400 years (ten generations) and then die.
I am not Elijah. Based on Malachi 4:5-6, many Jews believed that Elijah would return before the messiah came. Peter asks about the coming of Elijah after the transfiguration (Mark 9:9-13) and Jesus identified John as the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Matt 11:14, 17:12). It was also thought that Elijah might come to the aid of those suffering innocently, as reflected in the mocking of Jesus on the Cross (Mark 15:33-36).
I am not the Prophet. The Prophet was a messianic expectation based on Deut 18:15-18. In that text God says that a prophet like Moses will someday come and God will put his word in that prophet’s mouth. While it is possible the Deuteronomy passage had Elijah in mind, the Samaritans believed that a messianic prophet would someday come and the Qumran community believed that two messiahs, one of David and one of Aaron would eventually arrive to purify the Temple and the Kingdom. 4 Ezra 2:18 indicates that Isaiah and Jeremiah will return in the last days.
John does identify himself as the “Voice crying in the Wilderness” (1:23) This is an allusion to Isaiah 40:3, but the context of this allusion is critically important. Isaiah 40 is a prophecy describing the return from exile after Jerusalem fell in 586. The prophet is inviting the people of Israel to come out of exile and return to the wilderness where the Lord will meet them and lead them back to the land as he did in the original Exodus.
Like the original Exodus, in Isaiah 40 -55 God will meet the people in the wilderness and care for them, although this time it will be like a return to Eden. The wilderness will blossom and water will flow, and the people will enter the Land once again. When Judah was allowed to return to Jerusalem staring in 538 B.C., relatively few returned and those who did faced great hardships. The prophecy of Isaiah 40-55 was not exhausted in that return, if it was fulfilled at all.
There were many in the first century who seemed to think that the exile continued as long as there was no king in Israel and as long as the “times of the gentiles” continued. Daniel 9 seems to indicate that the exile was far longer than the 70 years predicted by Jeremiah, there will be 70 times 7 years until the Land is restored to peace and the true Davidic king rules from Jerusalem.
John is therefore claiming to be an eschatological messenger preparing Israel for the end of the exile.
John is described in the Gospels as actively looking forward to the reign of the Messiah. Two stories illustrate this fact. First, when Jesus was refused by a Samaritan village, James and John offer to call down fire from heaven to destroy the unbelieving village (Luke 9:51-56). Context in critical in this short story. Luke 9:51 is the major transition in the book of Luke, at this point Jesus begins a journey to Jerusalem which will result in the crucifixion, He is absolutely aware of what he is about to do, and it is possible that this “resolution” was communicated to his disciples. James and John therefore see this as the time of the Messiah coming – Jesus is going to Jerusalem to judge those who are not living in accordance with the Law and to establish True Israel (with the disciples a s new twelve tribes, James and John on the right and left, etc.)
Why call down fire from Heaven? These Samaritans have rejected Jesus and the truth that he is the Messiah. James and John see themselves as re-enacting Elijah’s ministry. Elijah was the prophet who confronted Baalism in Samaria and called fire down form heaven in order to judge those who had already rejected the Lord. James and John, therefore, should be seen as preparing for the kingdom to come immediately, or perhaps, they believe that it has already come in the person of Jesus when he “resolutely set out” toward Jerusalem.
James and John request to sit on either side of Jesus when the kingdom is established (Mk 10:35-45). In this well known story, James and John were so zealous for the Lord that he was willing to ask Jesus for the highest place in the kingdom, along with his brother John. Presumably they were both there when their mother made the request. This request as necessarily a bad thing, at least it was better than seeking the last possible seat in the Kingdom for fear of having to really do any work. They were zealous for the Lord’s work, although it expressed itself badly. At that time, Jesus told the brothers they would in fact drink from the same cup as he would. James was the first of the Lord’s disciples to be martyred (Acts 12). John, on the other hand, lived a very long life, probably into the 90’s . It is possible he was quite young during the ministry of Jesus, maybe even a young teen, but to live into the 90’s indicates he was quite old at that time.
In Acts, Luke describes Peter and John as a kind of ministry team (Acts 2-4 and 8:14-25).
They were the pair of disciples who preached the imminent kingdom in the Temple. But as far as Luke describes it, Peter is the spokesperson, John is silent. The pronouns used to describe Peter and John in chapter four indicate that they are both considered bold, despite Luke only giving us the words of Peter. The last time John appears in the narrative of Acts in 8:14-25. Like chapters 2-4, he is only mentioned alongside Peter as the two disciples who went to Samaria to investigate Philip’s ministry there. Both returned to Jerusalem after Peter rebuked Simon Magus, and there is no indication in Acts that the apostles had much to do with Samaritan ministry.
While Luke has no interest in tracking the ministry of John, this does not mean he was inactive after Acts 8. In fact, we know he was very active from the body of literature which he produced in the New Testament.