Text: Luke 3:1-6

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. 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 the words 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.’”

Last Sunday night as we were driving home from the Psalm Roar, the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah came on the radio. Roland spoke up from the back seat, “I love this song.” The next song was some mushy contemporary-Christian holiday song, and Roland said, “I don’t like this one. I wish we could go back to the one with the trumpets.” I’ve never been more proud as a father.

In fact, Handel’s Messiah is one of my favorite pieces of music of all time. Those trumpets are pretty cool, but I really like the way the lyrics too. You see, Messiah is all about how Jesus Christ fulfills the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. It begins with Isaiah, and that’s what we normally hear at Christmas time. These prophecies are all about salvation, but they are also about judgment and the work that God does when He steps into our world. When Isaiah was first written, many of these prophecies sounded like “end of the world” prophecies. Reading Isaiah today, they still do. The gospels tells us that these prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and what’s really exciting is that the gospels tells that they were fulfilled in Jesus’ first coming.

We’ve been talking about eschatology, that is the study of the End Times, and we have been showing how many of the passages that people associated with Jesus’ second coming really about His first. We will see this again today. Here in chapter 3, John the Baptist is said to be fulfilling Isaiah 40, as he is the voice crying out in the wilderness. Ultimately, though, John is pointing to Jesus as the one who will bring salvation. John is the new Isaiah proclaiming the same prophecy, and Jesus is the manifestation of God, come to earth to save His people. It is Jesus who brings about the judgment, blessings, and salvation predicted by Isaiah. This morning we will continue seeing how the End-Times-prophecies began to be fulfilled in the 1st Century by seeing how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 40 and beyond, and we will see what that means for us today.

John the Baptist

Luke 3 introduces John the Baptist in his prophetic ministry. Chapter 1 has already told us about his miraculous birth. We know that he is the son of a priest (Luke 1:5). His mother was also from a priestly family. But she was barren, and the miracle is that she gives birth despite this natural impairment, thus placing her in the line of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and other famous women in the line of the covenant.

We are told that John will be a prophet at his birth announcement:

He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord 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 1:15-17)

The language used when he appears in chapter 3 is also the language used of prophets. “The word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching” (Luke 3:2-3). This parallels language used about Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, and other Old Testament prophets (Jer. 1:1-2; 11:18-20; 13:3; Is. 38:4; Hos. 1:1). Toss in the fact that John lives in the wilderness and dresses like Elijah (Matt. 3:4), and the picture is complete. In Matthew 11:9 Jesus says that while He does not look that much like an Old-Testament prophet, John certainly does, and then He goes on to proclaim that John the Baptist is the promised “Elijah who is to come” (Matt. 11:14).

Isaiah 40

Luke says that John’s prophetic ministry was a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, specifically Isaiah 40: 3-5.

“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.’”

To fully understand this, you should read the larger context. Is. 40 begins with those famous words, “’Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned’” (Is. 40:1-2). It goes on to say that the Lord will come to Earth to judge the nations and restore righteousness. He will deliver His people, but He will also destroy the wicked. Listen to what else Isaiah says there:

Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
He brings the princes to nothing;
He makes the judges of the earth useless.
Scarcely shall they be planted,
Scarcely shall they be sown,
Scarcely shall their stock take root in the earth,
When He will also blow on them,
And they will wither,
And the whirlwind will take them away like stubble. (Is. 40:21-24)

Now, this prophecy of Isaiah’s came many centuries earlier than when John was preaching. It was originally given just prior to the fall of Israel and the Babylonian Captivity. But what’s important to know about the book of Isaiah is that it basically has two halves. The first “half” predicts events which are “near” or just about to happen. Several of them are actually fulfilled in the reign of Hezekiah. But the second “half,” starting with chapter 40 and continuing to the end of the book, speak of the end of the world. These prophecies predict the restoration of Israel from captivity, but also worldwide judgment and cosmic redemption.

This is important to understand because John is saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of these prophecies of Isaiah. Jesus will make the crooked things straight, but He will also be the suffering servant of Is. 42-53, He will be the restorer of Israel from Is. 61, and He will be the one who creates the New Heavens and New Earth which are predicted by Is. 64. When John preaches in Luke 3:9, “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” he is delivering a message about the Final Judgment of all things.

How Is It Fulfilled?

Now, beyond merely having a second prophet who speaks from the wilderness, we need to ask whether Luke was correct to say that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled. After all, a great deal of miraculous activity was supposed to take place. Did Jesus actually do those things? To answer these questions, we need to take a look at the content of the prophecy in a little more detail.

There are three main components of this section of Isaiah 40. We see that the prophetic voice calls people to “prepare a way for the Lord.” Then we see that the Lord levels the creation—bringing the high things low and the low things high, straightening out the crooked places and smoothing out the rough. Finally, God will show “salvation” to all mankind. Let’s examine each of these.

The first part of the prophecy tells us to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Back in Isaiah, it’s actually a little longer: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert, a highway for our God” (Is. 40:3). The language actually implies a road. You might say, “cut out a path in the desert on which God will travel.” John is in a literal desert when he is saying this, but the implication is that Israel is in a spiritual and moral desert. Even though they are fully “at home” in their land, they are not right with God, and in that sense they are sill exiled in the wilderness. This is the reason that God is coming, after all, to deliver them and restore the kingdom. John is telling them to get ready, and one way to get ready is to do away with all barriers and impediments, namely idolatry and pride.

The next section shows us what God will do when He arrives.

Every valley shall be filled
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough ways smooth (Luke 3:5; Is. 40:4)

Literally, these words illustrate a cosmic leveling, where God makes the whole earth flat, straight, and smooth, basically a blank slate. While this might sound nice to a casual Christian audience, it would actually be a cataclysmic experience. This is a picture of a world being flattened. It would involve violence and dramatic disruption. The hills would fall down, and the crooked places would be straightened out, by pulling and stretching and breaking and cutting.

Of course, I think this section is also metaphorical. It shows how God will remove all obstacles in order to bring about His wishes, and it also shows the nature of His judgment. Exalting the valleys means taking the things that are lowly and raising them up. Bringing the mountains low means that God will take those powers and people who are currently high and mighty and humble them. He will bring justice and renew and restore the poor and needy. This is a total equilibrium. Everything is put back in its proper place.

This repeats what Mary said in her Magnificat:

He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

Jesus did all of this in a few different ways. He humbled powerful people quite literally in specific instances in the gospels. Think of His encounters with Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, or the Rich Young Ruler. He also “disarmed principalities and powers, [and] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them” in His death on the Cross, as we are told in Colossians 1:15. Jesus defeated Satan and Death and took His seat on the highest throne, at the right hand of God the Father. There is still a future element to this, of course. Jesus will complete this putting down and raising up very literally in His second coming, when He judges all mankind. Those wicked men who have enjoyed success in this life will have it taken from them and will be punished and put to open shame. And those who have suffered unjustly in this life will be healed, restored, and rewarded with blessings, riches, and authority. They will rule with Jesus in the New Jerusalem.

Thirdly, Isaiah’s prophecy in Luke 3 states that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” When we go back and read it directly from the Old Testament, we see it rendered as, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Is. 40:5). Both translations are accurate. Jesus’ very name means salvation, and He came to bring salvation through His life, death, and resurrection. And he is also the glory of God revealed to mankind. He is Emmanuel, God with us, and in the words of John’s prologue, He is, “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This too has a future element to is, as only the eyes of faith could behold this divine glory at Christ’s first coming. At the second, all flesh, whether in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, will see and know that Jesus Christ is God and Lord. They will see Him as He is, in His divine glory.

Conclusion

And so now, in conclusion, we find ourselves living in the in-between time. We know and believe that Jesus was the fulfillment of Isaiah 40 and that He did do these things on Earth. And yet we see aspects that are still incomplete. We see injustice, disorder, and unbelief. So we look forward to the Second Advent, when Jesus will complete His work of putting all things to right.

Having said this, however, it is very important to note that these are not actually two separate actions. Jesus didn’t come and do “part” of Isaiah’s prophecy in the first century and then leave, putting things on pause. We are not currently waiting in a passive state. No, Jesus began a work which is ongoing. He continues it through the power of His Spirit, the Spirit who shares His whole divine nature, and He works that Spirit in and through His people, the Church. We prepare a way in our hearts by casting out all the works of darkness. We dethrone the idols of every human heart, starting with our own but then preaching the gospel others in order to tear down the strongholds of the whole world. The gospel levels mountains by breaking stony hearts, and it raises valleys by resurrecting the faithful through the power of the Holy Spirit even now. As our lives are transformed, we begin the new creation now, by being the new humanity on earth. We show the world how it will be, and we live the life we expect to see at the end of history now, by walking in the light of God’s word.

Finally, we do see the glory of the Lord through His salvation, and we proclaim that same glory to others in Christ Jesus. This is why we worship Him, and this is why we tell others about Him. When Isaiah saw the Lord, he fell on His knees. He confessed His sins, proclaiming, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips” (Is. 6:5). And having received forgiveness, he immediately volunteered to spread God’s message. “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me’” (Is. 6:8). This is what we must do today. We cry out in the wilderness, just as John did before us.

Advent is about judgment, but that means that Advent must be about evangelism. Go out and prophesy to this Earth! Tell them that God has come. Everything has changed. Tell them that God is coming. Everything will be changed. All flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Let us pray.

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