The Desert Priest

I realized something the other day as I was listening to the gospel of Luke.

John the Baptist was born into the Levitical priest-hood. According to Luke 1:5 his father Zacharias was a priest of the order of Abijah, and as if that were not enough, his mother Elizabeth was also of the line of Aaron.

I find this seeming little detail groundbreaking. Not only was John born of parents both of the levitical priesthood, but he is their first and only child, a miracle in their old age. Can you just envision the implications of this? Let’s take a look at the story in Luke 1:5-25:

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.

So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10 And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.

13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 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.”

18 And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.”

19 And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. 20 But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.”

21 And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. 22 But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.

23 So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. 24 Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

                     – Luke 1:5-25 [NKJV]

Don’t miss verse six; “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.”

Zacharias (whose name means “remembered of Jehovah“) and Elizabeth (whose name means “oath of God“) represent the Law. They are righteous, blameless – they’ve kept all the commandments and ordinances of God–not to mention they have the very blood of Aaron’s sons and daughters in their veins.

And in its old age, the Law bears a son, and God calls Himself a gracious God, for John’s name means “Jehovah is a gracious giver“.

And John’s ministry? Preparing the way of the Lord in Israel:

14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 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 1:14-17

John is the forerunner of the Christ, and this is why it is so important that John is a priest of the old covenant, because the Christ is the very personage of the new covenant, and it is only right that the lesser levitical priest herald in the greater Melchizedekian (Psalm 110:4) Priest–the High Priest of the order of the King of Righteousness!

I did a brief search to find out just who Abijah–Zacharias’ priestly predecessor–was. Abijah was the head of the eighth of twenty-four divisions made by King David in the priesthood (1 Chr. 24:10) and interestingly (though perhaps not prominent to us at this point), Abijah’s division didn’t return from the Babylonian Captivity (Ezra 2:36–39, Neh. 7:39–42).

Now let’s take a look at John’s birth:

57 Now Elizabeth’s full time came for her to be delivered, and she brought forth a son. 58 When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her.

59 So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zacharias. 60 His mother answered and said, “No; he shall be called John.”

61 But they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.” 62 So they made signs to his father—what he would have him called.

63 And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, “His name is John.” So they all marveled. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God. 65 Then fear came on all who dwelt around them; and all these sayings were discussed throughout all the hill country of Judea. 66 And all those who heard them kept them in their hearts, saying, “What kind of child will this be?” And the hand of the Lord was with him.

– Luke 1:57-66

John’s coming was to mark a pivotal point for God’s people–the triumph of grace over law. Everyone wanted to call the new baby after his father, but finally in faith Zacharias declared the name which Gabriel had given – Jehovah is a gracious giver! His mouth was reopened and seeing the glory of God’s grace, the Law praised.

67 Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:

68 “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited and redeemed His people,
69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of His servant David,
70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets,
Who have been since the world began,
71 That we should be saved from our enemies
And from the hand of all who hate us,
72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant,
73 The oath which He swore to our father Abraham:
74 To grant us that we,
Being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear,
75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.

76 “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,
77 To give knowledge of salvation to His people
By the remission of their sins,
78 Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
79 To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

80 So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.

– Luke 1:67-80

I’m curious to know if anywhere before this the Spirit of God was said to fill someone rather than rest upon them; I recently heard that this was a difference between the old covenant and the new, that in the new covenant the Spirit of God dwells within rather than resting upon as is so often described of the Spirit in the Old Testament. The difference of a preposition–in instead of on. I haven’t verified that in any way to know how accurate it is, but if true it would seem that already there was a shift taking place as Zacharias became filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied over his son, the forerunner of the new covenant, whom Gabriel also declared would be filled with the Holy Spirit, even in the womb.

So John’s ministry was this: to prepare the ways of the Lord, to give Israel a knowledge of a new means of salvation, to give light to those in darkness, and to be a guide into the way of peace. In short, to prepare the way for Jesus Christ, the Messiah. And in John it is almost as though we see a mixture of old and new covenant, but John was no pseudo-covenant. He was the forerunner of the new covenant, preached the promise of salvation and baptized the people in water as a sign of faith and public act of repentance, and his lineage was of the levitical priesthood both by his mother and father, giving authority to his agreement with the coming of the Fulfillment of the old covenant, Jesus.

And in John’s (the disciple) gospel, when his disciples come questioning him about Jesus who has just begun a baptism ministry nearby, John the Baptist makes this declaration about Jesus:

27 John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease. 31 He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. 33 He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true. 34 For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure. 35 The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. 36 He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

            – John 3:27-36

He says, “I’m not the Christ,” for the Christ could not bring about a change of priesthood and be of the levitical line of priests, and “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Because the old covenant was ready to be laid to rest. And finally John declares the new covenant: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life,” it’s always been that simple. And I don’t think that John’s desert-dwelling made him ignorant to the old way. He was the son of old-covenant priests! What do you suppose they taught him growing up? The Law. And his ministry was in part the same as that purpose of the law, to give knowledge of sin. But again his ministry was also “Jehovah is a gracious giver,” salvation and forgiveness through belief in Jesus.

To end, Jesus said this about John in Luke 7:

24 When the messengers of John had departed, He began to speak to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings’ courts. 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is he of whom it is written:

‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.’

28 For I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

– Luke 7:24-28

Among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. 

Jesus wasn’t downplaying John, he was saying “Hey, John is the greatest man–there’s no greater human prophet than John.” But he also denotes something important: the least of the citizens of the kingdom of God are greater than John, and we know that this is because they are born of God Himself. John is the final piece in the old-covenant puzzle, and his purpose is to prepare the way for the new covenant Himself, Jesus. John is the greatest man in old covenant terms, righteous and blameless, born of righteous and blameless parents, he has abstained from wine and all other alcoholic drinks his entire life and his diet consists of locust and honey.

But after John came something, foreshadowed by the old ways, yet completely different:

The kingdom of God.

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