February 2 Evening Verse of the Day

1:23 In quoting Is. 40:3, John applies to Christ what is said of Yahweh in that passage. The same truth appears even more clearly in Mark 1:1–3.[1]

1:23 one crying out John identifies himself by quoting Isa 40:3. All four Gospels apply this Scripture to John the Baptist, but John’s Gospel is the only one that puts the quote on the lips of John the Baptist himself (compare Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4).[2]

1:23 John is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, in keeping with the prophet Isaiah’s words (Isa. 40:3; cf. Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4). By preaching a word of repentance and divine judgment, this messenger of God was to prepare the way for the Lord God of the OT (Yahweh himself) to come to his people through the wilderness.[3]

1:23 John quoted and applied Is 40:3 to himself (cf. Mt 3:3; Mk 1:3; Lk 3:4). In the original context of Is 40:3, the prophet heard a voice calling for the leveling of a path. This call was a prophetic picture that foreshadowed the final and greatest return of Israel to their God from spiritual darkness and alienation through the spiritual redemption accomplished by the Messiah (cf. Ro 11:25–27). In humility, John compared himself to a voice rather than a person, thus focusing the attention exclusively upon Christ (cf. Lk 17:10).[4]

1:23 The voice: Christ is the Word; John the Baptist was the voice. When pressed to identify himself, John the Baptist claimed that he was the fulfillment of Is. 40:3. In Isaiah’s day there were few roads. When a king traveled, roads were built so that the royal chariot would not have to travel over rough terrain or be stuck in the mud. Isaiah was saying that before God appeared to manifest His glory, a voice would be heard, inviting Israel to make straight the way by which God Himself would come. John was identifying himself as that voice calling people to make straight the way of the Lord.[5]

1:23 He said, “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness.’ ” In answer to their query, the Baptist quoted from Isaiah 40:3, where it was prophesied that a forerunner would appear to announce the coming of Christ. In other words, John stated that he was the forerunner who was predicted. He was the voice, and Israel was the wilderness. Because of their sin and departure from God, the people had become dry and barren, like a desert. John spoke of himself simply as a voice. He did not pose as a great man to be praised and admired, but as a voice—not to be seen, but only to be heard. John was the voice but Christ was the Word. The word needs a voice to make it known and the voice is of no value without a word. The Word is infinitely greater than the voice but it can be our privilege, too, to be a voice for Him.

John’s message was, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” In other words, “The Messiah is coming. Remove everything in your life that would hinder you from receiving Him. Repent of your sins, so that He can come and reign over you as the King of Israel.”[6]

1:23. John the Baptist (v. 23) literally preached in the wilderness as Is 40:3 indicated (cf. Mt 3:2–3; Mk 1:3–4; Lk 3:3–4). By calling for repentance, he was preparing the people’s hearts (Make straight the way) to receive Christ by faith (cf. Ac 19:4). Of the four Gospels, only John’s does not mention the word “repent” or “repentance.”[7]

1:23. We can hardly imagine the shock the Jerusalem delegation must have felt upon hearing this rugged mountain man quote Isaiah 40:3 to describe himself. Think back to Isaiah’s warnings about the future rise of Babylon with the sharp break in the narrative which begins at chapter 40 to describe the future restoration of Israel. Here is the context for John’s answer:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Isa. 40:1–5).

So John was Elijah after all (Matt. 11:14; 17:10–13). He fulfilled the prophecy of Malachi as the forerunner who would proclaim the coming of the king.[8]

1:23 “ ‘I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness’ ” This is a quote from the Septuagint translation of Isa. 40:3 with an allusion to the parallel in Mal. 3:1.

© “ ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ ” This is a quote from (Isa. 40:3) the literary unit of Isaiah (chapters 40–54) in which the Servant Songs occur (cf. 42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; 52:13–53:12). They initially referred to Israel, but in 52:13–53:12, the phrase has been individualized. The concept of straightening the road was used for preparation of a royal visit.

This whole paragraph may have served John the Apostle’s theological purpose of depreciating John the Baptist because of the development of several heretical groups in the first century that took John the Baptist as their spiritual leader.[9]

23. The voice of him who crieth. As he would have been chargeable with rashness in undertaking the office of teaching, if he had not received a commission, he shows what was the duty which he had to perform, and proves it by a quotation from the Prophet Isaiah, (40:3.) Hence it follows that he does nothing but what God commanded him to do. Isaiah does not, indeed, speak there of John alone, but, promising the restoration of the Church, he predicts that there will yet be heard joyful voices, commanding to prepare the way for the Lord. Though he points out the coming of God, when he brought back the people from their captivity in Babylon, yet the true accomplishment was the manifestation of Christ in flesh. Among the heralds who announced that the Lord was at hand, John held the chief place.

To enter into ingenious inquiries, as some have done, into the meaning of the word Voice, would be frivolous. John is called a Voice, because he was enjoined to cry. It is in a figurative sense, undoubtedly, that Isaiah gives the name wilderness to the miserable desolation of the Church, which seemed to preclude the return of the people; as if he had said, that a passage would indeed be opened up for the captive people, but that the Lord would find a road through regions in which there was no road. But that visible wilderness, in which John preached, was a figure or image of the awful desolation which took away all hope of deliverance. If this comparison be considered, it will be easily seen that no torture has been given to the words of the prophet in this application of them; for God arranged everything in such a manner, as to place before the eyes of his people, who were overwhelmed with their calamities, a mirror of this prediction.[10]

1:23 / John replied in the words of … Only in this Gospel does the quotation of Isa. 40:3 appear on the lips of John the Baptist himself. In the other Gospels it is part of the comment of the Gospel writer (Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; Matt. 3:3). In Matthew, however, it is closely joined to John’s own words and may have been adapted from them with only slight changes (“This is [rather than “I am”] he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah”). If Isa. 40:3 helped shape the consciousness of the Essene community of Qumran in going out to the Judean desert to study the law (1QS 8.13–16), there is no reason why it could not have influenced John the Baptist as well.[11]

23 All four Gospels describe John the Baptist with a quotation from Isaiah 40:3 (compare Mk 1:3, Mt 3:3, and Lk 3:4), but only here is the quotation attributed to John himself. The Gospel writer even calls attention to John as the speaker by prefacing his pronouncement with the delegation’s question, “What do you say about yourself?” (v. 22). “I,” he replies, “am a voice of one crying in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ just as Isaiah the prophet said.” While the last clause, “just as Isaiah the prophet said,” could be a parenthetical comment by the Gospel writer, it is more likely part of John’s reply. The same text was cited by the Qumran community as a justification for their withdrawal to the Judean desert (1QS 8.14), but our Gospel divides the text differently and puts no particular emphasis on the phrase “in the desert.” While the quotation preserves the older tradition that John carried on his ministry in the desert, its purpose is not to locate his activity geographically. In this Gospel, in fact, John is seen preaching and baptizing not in the desert but in villages (such as “Aenon, near Salim,” 3:23) with ample water supplies.

The purpose of the quotation is rather to present John as a solitary and anonymous “voice” (phōnē) for God, the first such voice within the Gospel story. Although a clear distinction is evident between “the Word” (vv. 1–2, 14) and a mere “voice,” yet even a “voice” is no small thing. Jesus’ own voice will echo and reecho through the Gospel, and those who belong to him will be those who “hear his voice” (compare 5:25, 28; 10:3–5, 16, 27; 18:37). As for John, he claims no messianic role or dignity for himself. Later, in his only other self-identification in the Gospel, he will call himself “the bridegroom’s friend who stands by and hears him, and rejoices with joy at the voice of the bridegroom” (3:29). To him, Jesus is both “the bridegroom” and the coming “Lord” whose way must be made straight. To the delegation, “the Lord” is simply the God of Israel, but John will soon alert them that someone else is in the picture (vv. 26–27). The imperative, “make straight,” in the quotation is the only hint in this Gospel that John called the Jewish people to repentance. Everywhere else, his sole mission is to testify about Jesus and make him known to “Israel” (1:31).[12]

23 John’s reply is given in words from Isaiah 40:3 that are applied to him in each of the four Gospels (Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4). In each of the others the words are applied to John by the Evangelist; here John uses them himself. The point of the quotation is that it gives no prominence to the preacher whatever. He is not an important person, like a prophet or the Messiah. He is no more than a voice (contrast the reference to Jesus as “the Word”). He is a voice, moreover, with but one thing to say. John’s ethical teaching is not large in amount, nor striking in content (see Luke 3:10–14). As T. W. Manson says, “It is an anticlimax and it is important to realise why. It is because it is Interimsethik, the genuine article: telling men how to make the best of a bad job till the new day dawns.” John’s real function was not to teach ethics, but to point people to Jesus. “Make straight the way for the Lord” is a call to be ready, for the coming of the Messiah is near. The imagery is that of preparing a roadway by clearing away the obstacles.26 This was an important process in ancient times, especially for roads in the wilderness country.

It is not without its interest that the Qumran sect made use of the same passage from Isaiah: “they shall be separated from the midst of the session of the men of error to go to the wilderness to prepare there the way of the Lord; as it is written, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ This is the study of the law, as he commanded through Moses.” But they understood it to apply to themselves as they sat down quietly reading their Bibles in the desert. Whatever happened to people outside, they would be ready when Messiah came. John, by contrast, understood the words as a clarion call to the nation. He was not concerned with himself and his own safety at all. He was trying to prepare the way of the Lord by getting people ready to meet the Lord. He was only a voice. But he was a voice, proclaiming the Lord’s message.[13]

23 John answers with a quotation from the OT prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one calling in the desert.” The Synoptics quote Isaiah 40:3 and apply the prophecy to John the Baptist (Mk 1:3 par.), but in the fourth gospel John uses it to identify himself and his mission. He is not a prominent figure but only a “voice in the wilderness.” His role is simply to speak a word in behalf of the Eternal Word. This understanding of mission in terms of the quotation from Isaiah may account for the fact that John begins his career in the thinly populated area (“the desert”) of Israel rather than in the city. Boaō (“to call, shout, cry out,” GK 1066) is a strong word. It is used of Jesus’ cry of desolation on the cross (Mk 15:34).

John’s message is, “Make straight the way for the Lord” (cf. Isa 40:3). When an ancient dignitary was about to visit a province of his realm, the message would go out to prepare the way by removing all obstacles from the road and making it as smooth as possible. The road that the Messiah would travel was the road into the hearts and lives of his people. Only national repentance could prepare the way for that spiritual journey, and John had come to prepare the nation for the advent of the Messiah.[14]

[1] Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (p. 1509). Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries.

[2] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Jn 1:23). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[3] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 2021). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Jn 1:23). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[5] Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1313). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.

[6] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1469–1470). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[7] Hart, J. F. (2014). John. In M. A. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (Eds.), The moody bible commentary (p. 1609). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[8] Gangel, K. O. (2000). John (Vol. 4, p. 15). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[9] Utley, R. J. (1999). The Beloved Disciple’s Memoirs and Letters: The Gospel of John, I, II, and III John (Vol. Volume 4, p. 16). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.

[10] Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on the Gospel according to John (Vol. 1, pp. 58–59). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[11] Michaels, J. R. (2011). John (p. 34). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[12] Michaels, J. R. (2010). The Gospel of John (pp. 100–101). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[13] Morris, L. (1995). The Gospel according to John (pp. 120–121). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[14] Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 378). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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