I’ve been thinking today about two Old Testament prophecies, both of which are associated with John the Baptist, but both of which have much broader applicability.
- Isaiah prophesied that, following the Babylonian captivity, there would be a voice in the wilderness, crying “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3).
- Malachi likewise prophesied that a messenger would prepare the way before the coming of the Lord (Malachi 3:1, 3 Nephi 24:1). And he gave a specific example of such a prophet: Elijah.
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.Malachi 4:5-6, 3 Nephi 25:5-6
The writers of the Gospels recognized in John the Baptist a fulfillment of both of these prophecies:
- Matthew said, “This is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias [Isaiah], saying, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:3).
- According to Luke, the angel who appeared to Zacharias, John’s father, said, “He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias [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 1:17).
John’s listeners also seemed to recognize in him a fulfillment of these prophecies. “Who art thou?” asked the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem. “Art thou Elias?” John answered no, he was not literally the prophet Elijah. “Who art thou?” they asked again, and John replied:
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.John 1:23
But Jesus subsequently applied the name of Elias (the Greek form of Elijah) to John: “There hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist…. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come” (Matthew 11:11, 14). John may not have literally been Elijah the prophet, but he had fulfilled a role associated with Elijah: preparing the way for people to receive the Savior.
Joseph Smith said, “The spirit of Elias is to prepare the way for a greater revelation from God.” He also said, “Elias is a forerunner to prepare the way.” (See “Elias, Spirit of,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism.)
In August of 1830, Joseph Smith received a revelation in which the Lord listed a number of prophets who would one day join the saints in celebrating the return of the Savior. Included in the list was the following:
Elias, to whom I have committed the keys of bringing to pass the restoration of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began, concerning the last days;
And also John the son of Zacharias, which Zacharias he (Elias) visited and gave promise that he should have a son, and his name should be John, and he should be filled with the spirit of Elias;Doctrine and Covenants 27:6-7
So in this passage, Elias represents the angel Gabriel, who appeared to Zacharias to announce the birth of John the Baptist. (See Luke 1:19.) The title applied to him for the same reason the Savior applied it to John: because he was sent to prepare the way. He was a forerunner,
The prophet Lehi applied Isaiah’s prophecy specifically to John the Baptist (1 Nephi 10:7-10), but subsequent Book of Mormon prophets recognized that Isaiah’s admonition applied to many different people in different circumstances.
- The Spirit directed Alma, “Cry unto this people, saying—Repent ye, and prepare the way of the Lord, and walk in his paths, which are straight” (Alma 7:9).
- An angel told Samuel the Lamanite, “Cry unto this people, repent and prepare the way of the Lord” (Helaman 14:9).
- Mormon taught that, in all ages of the world, angels “prepare the way among the children of men, by declaring the word of Christ unto the chosen vessels of the Lord.” He added, “By so doing, the Lord God prepares the way that the residue of men may have faith in Christ” (Moroni 7:31-32).
So even though Isaiah’s and Malachi’s prophecies were fulfilled by John the Baptist, they have also been fulfilled by other people throughout the history of the world. And even though the name “Elias” refers specifically to the prophet Elijah, it also represents a person who prepares other people to receive the Savior.
Today, I will strive to prepare the way of the Lord, to help other people turn their hearts toward God. I will be grateful for the many people who have prepared the world to receive the Savior, including John the Baptist and Elijah. I will also be grateful for those who have functioned in the role of “Elias” for me—preparing the way for me to have faith, so that I can experience the love of God.