Just as God liberated the children of Israel from Egypt by bringing them through the wilderness, the prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when God would again deliver the Jews through rough country on their return to Jerusalem from Babylon. Isaiah not only saw this moment of deliverance more than 100 years in advance but also heard “a voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3).
The voice of one calling in Isaiah 40:3 is unnamed and should be seen as a poetic device in communicating the prophecy. The voice tells Isaiah’s audience that God would liberate Israel from exile in Babylon, directing the construction of a “highway,” as it were, in the wilderness. A highway in the wilderness is a recurring motif throughout Isaiah’s prophecies of deliverance: “There will be a highway for the remnant of his people that is left from Assyria, as there was for Israel when they came up from Egypt” (Isaiah 11:16; see also Isaiah 35:8–10). The Jewish people would endure a difficult journey as they returned to rebuild Jerusalem and their temple, but God would pave the way before them.
Like many biblical prophecies, the voice of one calling in the wilderness has a dual fulfillment. More immediately, it predicted the Jews’ deliverance from Babylon. Later, Isaiah’s anonymous “voice of one calling in the wilderness” is fulfilled by another prophet. Israel’s ultimate deliverance would come through the ministry of Jesus Christ. More than 700 years after Isaiah’s prophetic vision, the voice of one calling in the wilderness shows up again—this time in literal fashion: “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). John applied Isaiah’s prophecy to himself, saying, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’” (John 1:23). All four gospel writers cite Isaiah 40:3, connecting John’s voice and his ministry of preparing people for the coming of the Lord with the voice spoken of by the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23).
John the Baptist’s self-description as “the voice of one calling in the wilderness” was profoundly fitting. Not only did John minister in the wilderness of Judea, but God also chose him to introduce the nation of Israel to Jesus Christ and prepare the people’s hearts to receive their Savior and Redeemer (see Matthew 3:1–6). John preached boldly, calling people to “repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2, NLT). After people confessed their sins, they demonstrated repentance by being baptized and then living transformed lives.
John humbly acknowledged his inferior position as only “a voice.” Like the unnamed messenger in Isaiah, John’s speaking part was insignificant compared to Christ’s work. Even though he drew huge crowds, he never lost sight of his supporting role: “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11, NLT; see also John 1:15, 27).
John was sent not to gain a name and reputation for himself but to preach Jesus. When Jesus stepped into the limelight, John said, “I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him” (John 3:28, NLT). John the Baptist illustrated the supportive nature of his role with a metaphor: “It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less” (John 3:29–30, NLT).
As Christians, we have much to learn from John’s humility as “the voice of one calling in the wilderness.” John understood that he was not the focal point of his ministry. The apostle Paul grasped this, too, saying, “It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow” (1 Corinthians 3:7, NLT). As the Lord’s servants, we are privileged to play a part in God’s work, but we are not the light. Jesus Christ is the light of the world (John 8:12). We are mere reflections of that light purposed to point people to Him (Matthew 5:14–16).
When it came time for God’s people to be liberated from Babylon, God removed all obstacles and restored them to their land. “The way of the Lord” was made straight. When it came time for people to be liberated from sin, God again removed all obstacles, and He Himself came into our world (John 1:14). Israel was trapped in a spiritual wasteland when John the Baptist’s “voice of one calling in the wilderness” began crying out. But as people opened their hearts to Jesus Christ—“the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6)—they were set free from their spiritual bondage.
Today, we join our voices with John’s, proclaiming the message of Christ’s salvation to a lost and dying world so that “the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The Lord has spoken!” (Isaiah 40:5, NLT).