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Messiah is preceded by a Messenger in Prophecy and in History

Each of the gospels recognise Yochanan the Immerser (John the Baptist) as the messenger preceding Yeshua the Messiah fulfilling three prophecies (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1, 23 (4:5) ). Josephus’ account concerning John agrees with some but not all the details from the New Testament. This article will not explore the Jewish background of ritual purity and washing through means of immersion and a mikveh. Neither will a biographical sketch of John’s life be provided. For the sake of brevity and focus, I will concentrate on the fulfilment of prophecy and then Josephus’ comments.

Matthew’s Gospel

Following the birth narrative of Jesus, Matthew immediately spoke of John who preceded Him. John was preaching a baptism of repentance and is instantly recognised as the one would prepare the way of the Lord.

“For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight (Matthew 3:3; cf. Isaiah 40:3).’ “

John also confirmed that He who was coming was mightier than himself. However, later on John was imprisoned and had heard about the works of Jesus and even he asked his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the Coming One or do we look for another (Matthew 11:3)?” To reassure John that Jesus was the Messiah He sent them back stating “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf here; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them (Matthew 5:5) .”  This was clearly fulfilling another of Isaiah’s prophecies from Isaiah 35:5-6.

Adding even further clarity Jesus stated, “For this is he of whom it is written: Behold I send My messenger before your face, who will prepare Your way before You (Matthew 11:10; cf. Malachi 3:1).” This was fulfilling Malachi’s first prophecy concerning the messenger who would precede Messiah.

Then Jesus explained Malachi’s second prophecy from Malachi 3:23 (4:5). “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord”. In Matthew 11:13-14, Jesus stated, “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.”

Please note that Jesus was not stating that John was Elijah reincarnated, but rather John came in the spirit and power of Elijah. John confirmed when asked who he was, that he was not Elijah (John 1:21).

Furthermore, Elijah, together with Moses were present when Yeshua was transfigured (Matthew 17:1-13). At the Transfiguration, Jesus’s disciples asked him why the Scribes stated Elijah must come first? “Jesus answered and said to them, “Indeed Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist (Matthew 17:1-3).”

How did John then come in the spirit and power of Elijah? Luke’s gospel explains what John would do, which also connects with Malachi 3:23-24 (4:5-6). “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord to their God. He will also 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 a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:16-17).”

Mark’s Gospel

Mark’s Gospel commences with the messenger that preceded the Messiah and quotes from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 and brings them together. “As it is written in the Prophets: Behold I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.” “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight (Mark 1:2-3).’ “

Mark’s Gospel also provides an account of the transfiguration and like Matthew, responds to the disciple’s question regarding why Elijah must come first (Mark 9:13).

Luke’s Gospel

In Luke 1:16-17, an angel announced to Zacharias John’s father, that his son John would turn many of children of Israel to the Lord their God and they He would go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah (cf. Malachi 3-23-24; (4:5-6). In Luke 1:76-77, Zacharias prophesies the same over John, “And you child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins,”

Luke’s Gospel also identifies John as the one spoken of by Isaiah the prophet, although a larger portion of that passage is cited.

“And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, as it is written in the book of Isaiah the prophet, saying: The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Luke 3:3-6).”

John’s Gospel

Intriguingly, in John’s Gospel, John was questioned by some priests and Levites about his identity. First he was asked if he was the Messiah and John responded that he was not. He was then asked if he was Elijah and he confirmed that he was not. They asked John if he was the prophet (meaning the Prophet like Moses whom Moses foretold cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-22), and again John stated no.

Their line of reasoning makes sense. They wanted to determine if he was the Messiah or Elijah or Moses, of whom the latter two are representative of the Law and the Prophets. So they asked him who he was so they could provide an answer for those who sent them to determine who he was. “He said, “I am “The voice of one crying in the wilderness; make straight the way of the Lord.’ “as the prophet Isaiah said (John 1:23).”

John saw Jesus and made an emphatic statement concerning His identity. “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).” John recognised Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:29) and testified that he is the Son of God (John 1:34).

Josephus on John in history

Regarding the quote below from Josephus, this agrees with the narrative in Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospel in which Herod was ultimately responsible for having John killed (see Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29). It does differ however on Herod’s motive for killing John.

Antiquities 18.5.2

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the Baptist [the dipper]. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt — for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise — believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.

And so John, out of Herod’s suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.


Jesus being preceded by a messenger is an important prophecy fulfilling Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 and 3:23-24 (4:5-6). This correlates with the four respective gospel accounts which provide different emphasis. In addition to Josephus writing about Jesus (Antiquities 18.3.3), his account concerning John as a historical source concurs with the gospels concerning Herod killing John, although differs concerning the motive for doing so. John’s purpose was to point people to towards Jesus as the Saviour who would save people from their sins. Biblical prophecy is hence once more history foretold in advance and biblical history is the fulfilment of prophecy.