JOHN THE BAPTIST AND THE GREAT DAY OF THE LORD
The importance of John the Baptist to the interpretation of Revelation is almost universally overlooked. (Please refer to eschatology Study Series 6 The Old Covenant Hebrews in the NT Times for a more in-depth study into John the Baptist) I will limit the comments here to showing that John, as Elijah, was eschatologically significant, and that his ministry lends powerful credence to the identity of Babylon as Jerusalem.
Malachi 4:5-6 predicted the coming of Elijah before the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, at the close of the Last Days. In no uncertain terms, Jesus identified John the Baptist as Elijah (Matt. 11:13-14, 17:10-13). Clearly, therefore, John was an eschatological figure heralding the coming Day of the Lord. John was a sign that the last days had come. This is powerfully confirmed by his message.
John was a Covenant Messenger. Malachi says Elijah’s message would be, “remember the Law of Moses my servant,” (v. 4) and John’s task would be to, “turn the hearts of the children to the fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children” (4:5-6). According to Malachi 3:1, he was to be the messenger to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord in judgment, the time when no one could stand before that awesome presence (3:2).
This distinctly covenantal framework for the ministry of John as Elijah is important, because it gives a direct hint for identifying the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. John was not a messenger to the nations proclaiming the end of time. He was a messenger to Israel, proclaiming God’s coming to His temple in judgment (3:1). This cannot be construed to have no significance for “all nations,” for in scripture the judgment of the nations is inextricably linked with the time of Israel’s judgment (Isa. 65-66; Joel 2-3 etc.). This said, however, we must emphasize again that to ignore the Old Covenant framework of John’s ministry is to totally misconstrue his message, and the impending judgment he proclaimed. John was declaring Israel’s judgment for disobedience to her Covenant, not the end of the Christian age (cf. Isa. 24; Mal. 4:6).
Note the singular nature of John the Baptist’s message. John did not declare two Great Days of the Lord, one imminent, the other protracted. He did not proclaim the Great Day of the Lord, and then the Greater Day of the Lord. He did not speak of a “wrath about to come,” and then a “greater wrath – the really big one – that will eventually come one of these days by and by.” His message was “the wrath about to come” (Matt. 3:7). It is, therefore, “eisegesis” of the worst sort to ignore the imminence of John’s preaching, and extract from it a still future judgment.
How imminent did John foresee this Kingdom/judgment to be? Robertson’s comments are appropriate, “It was a startling word that John thundered over the hills and it re-echoed throughout the land. The Old Testament prophets had said it would come some day in God’s own time. John proclaims as the herald of the new day that it has come, has drawn near. How near he does not say, but he evidently means very near, so near that one could see the signs and the proof.” (A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament,Nashville, Broadman, Vol. 1, 1930)24).
When John said, “the kingdom is at hand,” he literally said, “the kingdom has drawn near.” What had once been far off had now come near (cf. 1 Pet. 1:5-12). Notice James 5:8 where the inspired writer said, “The coming of the Lord (parousia) has drawn near.” James uses the identical Greek word rendered “at hand,” in the same tense as the Baptist. Just as John proclaimed the true imminence of the Kingdom, the epistles declared the true imminence of the coming of the Lord in judgment. The reason is simple, judgment and Kingdom are Siamese twins linked at the heart. They cannot be separated. (This truth is greatly ignored. Yet, in prophecies of the establishment of the Kingdom, judgment is ubiquitous. See Isaiah 2:2-12; Isaiah 35:4-10; 51:4-11; 59:16-21; 61:1-3, etc .. In the New Testament, see Matthew 16:27-28; 25:31-32; Luke 19:11-15, 27: 2 Timothy 4:1; Revelation 11:15-19. In scripture then, the coming of the Kingdom meant the coming of judgment.)
Interestingly, many commentators insist that we honor John’s statements about the imminence of the Kingdom, yet they ignore the imminence of the judgment John announced. Since, however, the Kingdom and judgment are inseparably linked, this is indefensible. John’s message was of the soon coming of the Kingdom and attendant judgment.
When the Pharisees and Sadducees came out to be baptized, John, knowing their hearts, castigated them, “Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7) The word “come” is from mello (tes mellouses orges). The primary definition of this word means to be “about to, to be on the point of.?” (The Analytical Greek Lexicon, (Zondervan, 1975) 262.). Hagner says, “John’s apocalyptic message involves imminent judgment of the unrighteous in tes mellouses orges, ‘the coming wrath.’” (Donald Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas, Tx., Word Publishers, 1993)50.). John was Elijah with the task of warning people of the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. He told his audience that the Day was “about to come.”
The imminence factor is enhanced further in the text. John was to prepare the way for the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. Jesus’ incarnation, the time of His hiddenness and humility as the Suffering Servant, (Isa. 42; 53) is not in view here. It is the time of Yeshua’s, parousia as the judge bringing vengeance (Isa. 59:16-21).
John said of Jesus’ judgment, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn” (Matt. 3:12). Notice that John presents Jesus as already holding the instruments of harvest and judgment. Compare this image of imminent harvest with Matthew 13:36-51 (See eschatology Study Series 15 Lesson 3 Parable of the Tares for an extensive study on this), and harvest at the end of the age. This graphic imagery shows that John certainly did not perceive of any gap of thousands of years between his ministry, and Jesus’ coming in judgment. His own presence as Elijah belies this idea. Elijah was to come just before – not centuries or millennia before – the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord.
John the Baptist’s words were spoken before Jesus officially entered into his public ministry. Yet, John saw Jesus’ coming in judgment as so imminent that he said the instruments of harvest were already in His hands. John as Elijah was a sign of the Day of the Lord. As a sign and herald of the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, his words exude imminence from every syllable. The Kingdom/judgment “has drawn near” (Matt. 3:3). He challenged his audience, “Who has warned you to flee from the wrath about to come?” (v. 7) He declared, “the axe is already at the root” (v. 10), “His winnowing fork is already in His hand” (v. 12). To discount or ignore these statements of imminence is to do a gross disservice to Biblical interpretation.
THE GREAT DAY OF THE LORD
The Baptist was the herald and sign of the Great Day of the Lord. In Revelation 6:9-11, John beheld the: “souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. They cried with a loud voice saying: ‘How long, 0 Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge us on those who are on the earth?’ And a white robe was given to each of them: and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who should be killed as they were, was completed.”
God’s response to their prayer is in verses 12-17 – the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. Thus, the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord would be the time when the martyrs of God would be vindicated.
This “little while,” at the end of which the martyrs of God would be vindicated, is positively identified by Jesus himself. In Matthew 23:29-34, Jesus accused the Jews of being the slayers of the prophets, “which of the prophets have you not slain?” To those gathered around Him with blood in their eyes, and hatred in their heart, He said, “fill up then the measure of your fathers’ guilt” by slaying the “prophets, wise men and scribes” that He would send to them.
In some of the more challenging words from the Master’s lips, He then said, “Upon you will come all the blood of all the righteous from Abel to Zacharias, whom you slew between the Temple and the altar” (Matt. 23:35). Please take note that this judgment is universal, it extends all the way back to creation, and encompasses vindication of all the righteous. Can Jesus be speaking of anything other than the judgment of the “living and the dead”? He said, “upon you” – that is the living, will “come all the blood of all the righteous” – that is the dead.
Did Jesus say when this judgment would occur? His words are emphatic, “Verily I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:36). This is the time of the end, it is the Day of the Lord.
The martyrs of God would be vindicated/judged at the Great Day of the Lord (Rev. 6). Yeshua said the martyrs of God would be vindicated in “this generation” (Matt. 23:36). Matthew 23:36 speaks of Yeshua’s contemporary generation. Therefore, the martyrs of God would be vindicated/judged in Yeshua’s contemporary generation.
The interrelationship of Matthew 23 and Revelation 6 to the Great Day of God’s Wrath all but irrefutably confirms the identity of Babylon as Jerusalem, because John the Baptist was the sign and herald of the Great Day of the Lord, the Day of God’s Wrath, and he said it was imminent in his time (Matt. 3). Unless one wishes to delineate between the judgment of Matthew 23 and Matthew 24:29-39, then this definition would seem to be beyond controversy, as such a delineation is untenable.
In Matthew 24:29-31, Jesus is citing Joel 2:28-31 – “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, before the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord.” Thus, in Matthew 24:34, when Jesus said, “This generation will not pass till all these things are fulfilled,” He was saying that the Great Day of the Lord was for His generation.
In Matthew 23:36, He said the vindication of all the martyrs would be in His generation, at the Great Day of the Lord (Rev. 6). Thus, Matthew 23 and Matthew 24 both predicted the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, and both texts deal with the judgment of Jerusalem.
A line of continuity runs from Matthew 3 –> Matthew 23 –> Matthew 24 à Revelation 6. The statements of imminence are in each text. The subject matter is the same. The locale is the same.
John the Baptist was Elijah heralding the Great Day of the Lord against Israel. In Revelation, the Great Day of the Lord was imminent upon Babylon, the persecutor of God’s new People (true spiritual Israel). Unless one can demonstrate beyond doubt that John the Baptist was the herald of a different Great Day of God from that foretold by the Apocalypse, then Babylon must be Jerusalem.
DEFINING THE DAY OF THE LORD
A basic assumption of modern Christendom is that the Day of the Lord is a time ending, cosmos destroying event. Without doubt, when passages such as 2 Peter 3 describe the destruction of “the earth, and the elements therein,” it sounds like the end of time. However, just because it sounds that way does not make it so. One must honor the nature of apocalyptic language, and the Old Testament source for that kind of language.
In the Old Testament, the Day of the Lord had come many times. When the Lord used the Assyrians to destroy Israel, it was the Day of the Lord (Amos 5:18 – 6:8). In his prediction of that event, Micah the prophet said, “Behold the Lord is coming out of His place; He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth. The mountains will melt under Him, and the valleys will split like wax before the fire” (Mic. 1:3-4). Now, none of this literally happened when Assyria fulfilled these prophecies and invaded Israel. This is the nature of apocalyptic language. It is hyperbolic and metaphoric and cosmologic.
Anytime the Lord used another nation or army to accomplish His purposes, He was said to come. He came on the clouds, with a shout, with fire and a trumpet, and “heaven and earth” passed away. Notice just a few of the other occurrences of the Day of the Lord in the Old Testament.
1.) Isaiah 13 – When the Lord used the Medes to destroy Babylon, it is called the Day of the Lord. Yahweh came with His mighty ones (v. 3). Heaven and earth were destroyed (v. 9-13). The Lord did not visibly come, He came via the Medes (v. 17). Daniel 5 records the fulfillment of the prophecy.
2.) Isaiah 19-20 – When He would punish Egypt, the Lord would “ride a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt” (19:1). The nation would be destroyed. Yet, Isa. 19:23 and chapter 20 tells us it would be Sargon of Assyria that would accomplish this destruction.
3.) Isaiah 34 – The prediction of Edom’s demise sounds like the end of time. Taken literally it would have to be true also. The universe would be annihilated (v. 4), and the nations would be destroyed (v. 2). The earth would melt in the fire (v. 9-10), yet the prophecy is against Edom (v. 5). The Babylonians destroyed Edom in 583 BC (see Obadiah where the Day of the Lord on Edom had drawn near (1:1-2, 8-10, 15, 18). In Isaiah, the Day was not near.). In Malachi 1:2-4, the prophet looks back on the destruction as an accomplished fact.
4.) Jeremiah 4:23-26 – Babylon was about to destroy Jerusalem. Jeremiah envisioned this catastrophe as the destruction of heaven and earth at the presence of the Lord. In Zephaniah, Jeremiah’s contemporary, it says the Day of the Lord was at hand on Jerusalem. The Lord would come with a shout and with utter destruction (Zeph. 1:2-3, 12-18). Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BC, yet the language was not literally fulfilled. Israel’s world did come to an end but not the literal heavens and earth. The language is metaphorical and cosmological.
5.) Jeremiah 46 – When Nebuchadnezzar invaded the land of Israel, he would also campaign against Egypt. The Pharaoh was Necho, and Nebuchadnezzar defeated him in the battle of Carchemish in the fourth year of Jehoiakim, king of Judah (vs. 1-2). Jeremiah described the judgment of Necho, “For that day belongs to the Lord GOD of hosts, A day of vengeance, so as to avenge Himself on His foes” (v. 10).
It was the Day of the Lord. He came in judgment. Yet, not visibly in the manner described by the language. The language was not intended to be taken literally. It is expressive of the majestic actions of God to accomplish His purposes in history…not to end history.
Many other examples could be given of the Day of the Lord. Anytime Yahweh manifested His sovereignty, He came. He even came and destroyed “heaven and earth” when He rescued David from Saul’s attempts on his life (Psalm 18).
The Day of the Lord concept was well known to John the Baptist. That language had never been literally fulfilled. Is that not self-evident? Yahweh had come and judged Israel before, now John the Baptist was predicting the last days Parousia of the Lord’s majesty. However, there was something different.
We have seen that as Elijah, and “the messenger of the Covenant,” John was to prepare the way for the Lord. However, the “Lord” of this “Day of the Lord” was not to be the Father, but the Son into whose hands all judgment had been given (John 5:22). The implications of this are incredibly important for the deity of Jesus, and the nature of His coming.
Repeatedly, Christ predicted His coming “in the glory of the Father” (Matt. 16:27-28, 24:29-31, 25:31-46, 26:64, etc.). His prediction to Caiaphas that he would come on the clouds enraged the High Priest. Caiaphas well understood that Jesus’ claim to come on the clouds was a claim that He was going to come in judgment in the identical manner of the Day of the Lord in the Old Testament. Only Yahweh rode on the clouds (Psa. 104:1-3), Jesus was claiming the prerogative of deity.
The entire unbroken history of the Day of the Lord language is metaphoric and cosmologic. When Jesus and the New Testament writers use that language, they openly inform us that they are anticipating what the prophets foretold (2 Pet. 3:1-2, 13). When Jesus predicted His coming on the clouds, He quoted from Daniel, Joel, and Isaiah (Matt. 24:29-31). When the New Testament writers quote Old Testament metaphoric language to describe Christ’s coming in judgment, what right do we have to change the historically validated metaphoric use of that language? This clearly has profound implications for the interpretation of Revelation.
Whoever someone wants to say Babylon was, she was to bear the brunt of the Day of the Lord (Rev. 6:12-17; 16-19). This is the time of the destruction of “heaven and earth” (chapter 21). Please remember that John the apostle emphatically tells us that he was anticipating the fulfillment of the prophetic promises. He repeatedly quotes, cites and alludes to the metaphoric language of the prophets. What evidence suggests that we should change the figurative language of the prophets to a literal application? None.
Given the metaphoric nature of the Day of the Lord language, we must identify the Day of the Lord language in Revelation to a time of judgment of some nation, whoever it might be. Given the covenantal nature of John the Baptist’s mission to Israel, we identify that nation as Israel. Babylon was Jerusalem.
For a more in-depth study see the related full “Study Series” (available upon request if not hyperlinked):
“Study Series 16 Lesson 5 Rev. Chapters 14 thru 16”