The gospel of Jesus Christ (the good news of Yeshua the Messiah) does not begin with a manifestation of the Messiah Himself. The gospel begins with a messenger and a message to prepare the way for the Messiah. "The beginning of the gospel of Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send My messenger before thy face, which shall prepare the way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight" (Mark 1:1-3).
Before Yeshua was manifested to Israel as the Messiah and Son of God at His First Advent, the spirit and power of Elijah had to prepare the way for His appearance. Before Yeshua is manifested to the world a second time as the Messiah and Son of God, the spirit and power of Elijah must again prepare the way for His appearance. "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of Yahweh" (Mal. 4:5).
In New Testament times, the spirit and power of Elijah was embodied in John the Baptist, and operated through the Baptist's ministry. In our time, the spirit and power of Elijah is still at work, whenever and wherever God's people heed the message that John preached. John's message can be summed up in one word: Repent. "In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:1f).
The word repent means different things to different people. Some people think of repentance as nothing more than a mental acknowledgement of one's sins, followed by a verbal confession, either to a priest or to God. Some define repentance as feeling sorry and remorseful about one's sins. Other people might include things like the shedding of tears, the wringing of hands, and the beating of the breast in their definition of repentance. True repentance should include confession of sins and feelings of remorse. And it doesn't hurt to have some old-fashioned tear-shedding, hand-wringing, and breast-beating thrown in for good measure. But there is one more vital and necessary ingredient that must be present for repentance to be genuine repentance. That ingredient is a change of behavior.
John the Baptist's audience clearly understood that John's call to repentance required not just feeling, but doing something. "And the people asked him, saying, 'What shall we do then?'...Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, 'Master, what shall we do?'...And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, 'What shall we do?'" (Lk. 3:10-14). Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost brought the same response ("Men and brethren, what shall we do?"), as did Paul's encounter with Yeshua on the road to Damascus ("Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?") (Acts 2:37 & 9:6).
A true change of heart produces a change of behavior. "A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, 'Son, go work today in my vineyard.' He answered and said, 'I will not.' But afterward he repented and went" (Matt. 21:28f). The sincerity of this son's repentance was proven by his actions. It would not have been true repentance if he had merely said to his father "I'm sorry I didn't obey you" and then continued to abide in his disobedient state.
If we tell God we are sorry, but still continue to knowingly disobey His commandments, we have not really repented. It is not enough to just call Jesus Lord. "Not every one that saith unto me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).
This does not mean that we earn forgiveness and eternal life by obeying God's commandments. Forgiveness and eternal life are gifts that are given to us because we trust in the atoning work of Yeshua. Nor does it mean that we must change our behavior before we come to the Savior. We come to the Savior as we are, laden with our sins, and let Him take away our sins and give us eternal life. But we must come with the sincere intention of changing our behavior. With the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, we start changing our behavior. We stop living a life of disobedience and start obeying our heavenly Father's commandments. If there is no change of behavior, then our faith is insincere and bogus. As James put it, faith without works is dead.
John the Baptist's message of repentance paved the way for the Messiah's First Advent, and the same message must pave the way for the Messiah's Second Advent. This message of repentance that we ourselves must heed and then share with others is a message that involves some "landscaping" and "road reconstruction" to prepare the way of the Lord. Notice the references to landscaping and road reconstruction in John's ministry:
"Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Lk. 3:4-6).
What do these references to landscaping and road reconstruction mean? What do filling valleys, leveling hills, straightening out crooked paths, and smoothing out rough roads have to do with preparing the way of the Lord?
Roads and paths exist for the purpose of leading travelers to a destination. The destination of a seeking sinner is the Savior, the One who can save him from his sins. The heart of the seeking sinner catches a glimpse of Jesus afar off, and sees hope of forgiveness and eternal life. The sinner begins his pilgrimage by walking toward Jesus. But a pilgrim hiking through mountains and valleys on rough, crooked paths will have a difficult time reaching his destination. He will often find his view of the goal obscured by the landscape. As a result, he may lose heart or even lose his way. It is God's will that every seeking sinner reach the goal and find eternal life in His Son. Therefore God wants the road to the Savior to be as straight and as level and as smooth as possible, with no obstacles blocking the sinner's view of the Savior, so that people looking for the goal can see the goal. According to the Bible, this was to be the result of the preparatory landscaping and road reconstruction: "And all flesh shall see the salvation of God." "Salvation" in Hebrew is yeshuah. The Father wants all flesh to see the yeshuah that is in His Son, Yeshua.
If we want people to see God's salvation, we have to make the road plain to them. We have to bring them to a place where their view of Yeshua is not blocked by the mountains of misunderstanding and hills of confusion that are around them. We have to explain things as simply, as clearly, and as thoroughly as we can—basic things like repentance, trust, forgiveness.
We have to do some Divine landscaping and road reconstruction. We have to fill in some valleys, level some hills, straighten out some crooked paths, and smooth out some rough places. If a person is in a valley of depression, so deep that it obscures his view of the Savior, then we need to fill that valley up with words of love and hope, and lift the depressed sinner up high enough to see some hope in God's salvation. If a sinner is high and lifted up and blinded by his own pride and arrogance and self-righteousness, then we need to level that mountain of pride by lovingly but firmly speaking the truth of God's Word, and let the Lord humble him so that he will look up to the Lord instead of looking down on other people. If a sinner has warped, crooked ideas about God's ways (as most sinners do), then we need to lovingly straighten out his crooked paths so his view of God's salvation is not blocked. If the road of life has been rough for a sinner, then we need to do what we can to smooth it out for him so he can more easily find his way to the Savior.
The purpose of preparing the way of the Lord, the purpose of doing Divine landscaping and road reconstruction, is so that all flesh will see the salvation of God. After a sinner comes to the Savior and finds forgiveness, the Master sets him on another path, the path of discipleship. This path of discipleship will be difficult and rough at times; it will have its ups and downs through mountains of ecstasy and valleys of sorrow. But this path of discipleship for the redeemed is not the path I am talking about. The path that needs to undergo landscaping and road reconstruction is the path that leads seeking sinners to the Savior. This is the path which must be made straight and clear and level and smooth, so that those sinners who are seeking salvation can see the salvation of God when we point them to the Savior.
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Image (Top): Equally Yoked, by Daniel Botkin from his Monochromatic Monotheistic Gallery. See all Daniel's art galleries at DanielBotkin.com