by Ed Gallagher
Bonus Material for Luke Lesson 1, “John the Baptist in Luke“
Isaiah 40 begins a series of prophecies about the return of the Judeans from Babylonian exile. The first words of Isaiah 40 are “Comfort, O Comfort, my people,” and the reason God’s people need comfort is because they have suffered the punishment of captivity. The words of Isaiah 40 announce the end of that punishment, the return from exile. Israel has paid for her sins. But—as we notice in the lesson “John the Baptist in Luke”—in some ways the return to the Promised Land did not actually mark the end of the exile. The people were still slaves in their own land. And so while the words of Isaiah 40 had been fulfilled to some extent, at least some Jews in the first century thought that these words looked forward to a future time when God would act, when he would forgive his people of their sin and establish his kingdom.
The community of the Dead Sea Scrolls were out at Qumran in the Judean desert in an attempt to prepare the way of the Lord. One of their important documents applies the words of Isaiah 40 to the community: they were “preparing the way in the desert.”1
The New Testament links this prophecy with John the Baptist (Luke 3:4–6; cf. Isa 40:3–5). He was the voice in the desert, preparing the way of the Lord. His ministry signaled the salvation of God.
By the way, there was probably some sort of connection between John and the people out at Qumran. Some people have thought that John may at one time have been a part of that desert community, but that is only speculation.2 Regardless, as Beasley-Murray has said, “it is nevertheless impossible that he [John] could have been ignorant of their existence.”3 That is because of their similar location out in the desert at the same time, their similar emphasis on baptism, and their similar relation to the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3 as preparers of the way of the Lord. But John’s baptism was unlike that at Qumran in the sense that it was a once-for-all baptism, whereas at Qumran they immersed themselves frequently for ritual cleansing.
(1) See The Community Rule, column 9, lines 19–20, in Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr., and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 131.
(2) Everett Ferguson, Baptism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 87.
(3) G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Paternoster, 1972; repr. Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 39.