RECONCILING PROPHECIES ABOUT JOHN THE BAPTIST
Jack Cottrell – June 2017
QUESTION: There seem to be some discrepancies between the two OT prophecies about John the Baptist (Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1), and Mark’s citation of them in Mark 1:2-3. Can you shed some light on this?
ANSWER: The texts in view here are as follows (ESV translation):
Isaiah 40:3 – A voice cries; “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Malachi 3:1 – “Behold I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.”
Mark 1:2-3 – As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
When Mark cites these prophecies he conflates the messages of the two of them, but he mentions only Isaiah as the source and is silent about Malachi. (Matthew 4:4 cites only the Matthew prophecy, as does John the Baptist in John 1:23; and Luke 3:4-6 cites only Isaiah but includes verses 4 and 5.) Why does Mark name only Isaiah? The answer probably lies in the way the Jews divided the OT into three sections: The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Jesus reflects this in Luke 24:44, where he mentions “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.” At other times, only “the Law and the Prophets” are mentioned (see Matt. 7:12; 22:40; Luke 16:16). Thus we can assume that when Mark cites Isaiah, he is pointing us to all the prophetic books together under Isaiah’s name, i.e., that section of the OT. (This seems to be what Jesus is doing in Luke 24:44 when he refers only to “the Psalms,” even though other OT books are included in that section.)
We should note that the prophets are reporting these prophecies as being spoken by Yahweh. This is especially important in the Malachi passage, where Yahweh is speaking in the first person: “I send my messenger” (v. 1); “Then I will draw near” (v. 5); “For I the LORD do not change” (v. 6). In the sixth verse the speaker specifically identifies himself as Yahweh (translated here and in many other translations as “the LORD”—in all capital letters). The prophecies as cited in Mark are spoken by Yahweh.
The most serious issue here is the change from first person in Malachi to second person in Mark, as identifying the one whose “way” is being prepared by the messenger. Malachi says “prepare the way before ME,” and Mark says “prepare YOUR way” and “before YOUR face.” The point clearly is being made that a messenger—John the Baptist—was sent by God to prepare the way for the earthly ministry of Jesus. “My messenger” in Malachi and Mark is John. “Before me” in Malachi is Yahweh. But “your way” and “your face” in Mark are Jesus.
We should also note that in a later passage Matthew also cites the Malachi text and specifically changes the “me” to “you”: “This is the one [i.e. John the Baptist] about whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way before You” (Matt. 11:10, NASB).
(For clarification, the “you” in “whom you seek” and “in whom you delight” in Malachi refers to the Jewish people. Also, in Malachi the first messenger, i.e., “my messenger,” is John the Baptist; but the second messenger, in “the messenger of the covenant,” is the one for whose coming John will be preparing—namely, Jesus. It is important to see that these are two different “messengers.”)
Now, how may we explain the change from first person (“me”) in Malachi to second person (“you”) in Matthew and Mark? Who is coming? Whose way is John the Baptist preparing? Yahweh’s, or the Christ’s? The answer is BOTH! It is both, because the one true God who is revealed as Yahweh in the Old Testament age includes all three persons of the trinitarian nature of God as revealed more fully in the New Testament age! When Yahweh says in Malachi that the messenger will prepare the way before ME, he is referring specifically to one part of his threefold nature, i.e., to what we call the “second person of the Trinity,” the Logos (John 1:1), and “God the Son” (see Matt. 28:19). This threeness of God was not being revealed in OT times, but it is clearly known through NT revelation. Thus Matthew and Mark are showing us the distinction between God the Father (“my”) and God the Son (“you, your”).
There are other places in the NT where OT prophecies about Yahweh are cited by the NT writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as speaking specifically about the Lord Jesus Christ. See, e.g., Psalms 102:25-27, cited in Heb. 1:10-12 as applying to Jesus. Especially significant is Joel 2:32, which is cited as referring to Jesus in Acts 2:21, 36 and Romans 10:9, 13. (For more, see my book, What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer , 127-128.)
We can learn two specific lessons from this rather detailed study. First, this is part of the NT evidence that Jesus of Nazareth is divine. He has a divine nature; he is God in the flesh. His divine nature is sovereign, infinite, and eternal, and is equal with God the Father and God the Spirit in every way. He must be honored and worshiped as God: see, e.g., John 5:23; 20:28; Rev. 5:8-13.
Second, this is an example of how sometimes an error or a contradiction may seem to be present in the Bible, but how upon closer examination this proves not to be the case. The Bible is God’s Word, breathed out by the Holy Spirit through the inspired writers (2 Tim. 3:16). Thus Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).