Matthew has been setting the stage for introducing us to Jesus Christ.  He jumps from the birth of Christ right to the baptism of Christ and doesn’t give us much information about what Christ was doing prior to entering into His ministry.  Luke offers us a bit of history around Christ at the age of 12 being left behind and He teaching the elders, however, not much else is known.  This isn’t to say that it is unimportant overall, however, it seemingly not as important to the writers who want to focus on the ministry of Christ.  When we get to Matthew 3, we are introduced to a man named, John.  John was born of Zacharias and Elizabeth, whom the scriptures refer to as “righteous”, with Zacharias being a priest.  As we saw when we went through our Post-Exilic Judaism lessons, there were 5 Jewish responses to Hellenism: Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, Zealots and the Pharisees.  The Sadducees were the priests of Israel who occupied the temple and were a corrupt religious mafia family in how they carried out their priesthood duties.  Luke records Zacharias as being a righteous priest, which is not a description given for the Sadducees.  There is compelling evidence that Zacharias was of Essene influence, who also carried themselves in a priestly manner, yet, they fled the populous and went out in the wilderness.  They established places like Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  They viewed themselves as Son of Light and that by their dedication to knowing the text and walking the path, people would naturally come out to them to know how to walk the text as well.  They were highly dedicated and devoted, yet secluded themselves from allowing their devotion to influence their fellow citizens.  It is possible that Zacharias was of Essene influence, if not an Essene himself.  John then would be from a background of wilderness dwelling, who are of knowing the text and knowing the way and it is in his ministry that he’ll declare he is preparing the way of the LORD.  Again, I’m not dogmatically claiming that Zacharias nor John were Essenes, but simply stating that what is said of them makes it seem plausible.  Let’s jump into the text.

Mathew 3:1 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, 3:2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 3:3 For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 3:4 And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. 

Right away, Matthew greets us with some fiery imagery of what John the Baptist was like.  This will be important in our next lesson, but this all takes place in the wilderness.  There is a consistent pattern throughout scripture that highlights God bringing redemption from the wilderness and we will address this in the next lesson when we discuss the baptism of Christ.  John is baptizing (as the next few verses in Matthew 3 mention) but we should not presume our Christian ideas of baptism upon what is going on here.  Let’s keep this in its Jewish context of the day.  Recall during our Post-Exilic Judaism sessions that we discussed the idea of mikvah being associated with synagogue.  It was nothing more than a washing or a cleansing so that one would be clean, ritually, before coming into the synagogue.  Some synagogues had mikvah’s (what we might call a baptistery) outside the synagogue for this washing purpose.  Even today, before a Jew eats, he performs a mikvah – he washes up before eating.  In their day, there were two types of mikvah: Pharisaical Mikvah and Essene Mikvah.  The Pharisaical variety is essentially what we just discussed – it was ritual cleansings and washings.  They were intended to make you physically clean, but didn’t carry a real spiritual connection.  Essene Mikvah, however, was a baptism of repentance.  It was washing that served to tell the world around you that you were turn from the path you were on to walk the path.  Repentance is just that – it is a change in direction of one’s thinking and behavior.  It isn’t a slight course correction, but an actual 180 degree turnaround.  Essene baptism was a way to show that you had forsaken YOUR path in favor of GOD’s path.  The baptism itself did not put you in favor with God, but served as a testimony of your commitment.

John is out preaching a message of repentance and folks are baptizing under this message and ministry.  I word it this way on purpose – folks were baptizing.  Our Christian view of baptism is that an elder or a pastor is often the one authorized to baptism a convert (even though there is no scripture that mandates this) and they are baptized not to remove sin, but as a testimony of forsaking their path for His.  Although this is largely reminiscent of Essene mikvah, a striking difference is that in Jewish baptism, you baptize yourself (it’s a washing after all).  You are not baptized by someone else putting their hands on you and guiding you under the water and back to its surface.  That is a Christian spin on baptism – and, not saying it is wrong to do this, but just recognizing it for what it is.  When Matthew refers to John baptizing as part of his ministry, this refers to the umbrella of authority that he is commanding to allow these baptisms to take place.  He is allowing folks to come out and immerse themselves under his authority.  This will be key as Matthew 3 unfolds when John confronts the Sadducees and Pharisees who come out to see what all the commotion is.  This is also a key theme through the gospel of Matthew as the Pharisees and Sadducees are always questioning Jesus on the basis of who’s authority He does or says certain things.  John has planted a flag in the ground and on the banner is a message of repentance and folks are coming out and submitting/yielding to the message and washing themselves as a testimony of repentance.  This shouldn’t be surprising that it is a self-baptism, after all – we’ve seen this before.  Recall in 2Kings 5 where Naaman is told of Elisha to go to the Jordan River and dip (immerse/baptize) HIMSELF 7 times and then he would be healed of his leprosy.  Elisha didn’t wash Naaman – Naaman washed himself.  Furthermore, there is thought that what John is also doing is allowing folks whom the Sadducees and Pharisees have rejected from receiving mikvah at their synagogue to be able to have mikvah in the Jordan.  How appropriate we think about Naaman as lepers were just such in Israel would not be welcome to contaminate the mikvah waters.  John is preparing the way of the LORD by baptizing the outsiders – don’t miss this!  The preparation for the way of the Lord is not with the rich and powerful nor with the fanfare of a glamours parade, but with the washing of the outcast.  Let that simmer in your heart.

We’ll see more about this baptism as we get into the next lesson, but let’s focus on John’s approach – his message and who it is he seems to be acting like.  We’ve already noted that he is preaching a message of repentance because the kingdom was at hand.  Every Jew would have known about this kingdom and after coming out of exile in Babylon, but now under the Romans, not only would they have known their text as it speaks of the kingdom, but they were ready for it to be a reality.  For the sake of time, I’m not going to do a grand expose on the kingdom, but I will highlight a few things.  In Exodus 19:4-6, we see that God’s intention for Israel was to be a kingdom of priests as a holy nation.  Back in Genesis 10 and 11, we find the account of the Tower of Babel where God disinherits the nations, but reserves a man named Abram (later, Abraham), and that from Abram’s lineage, God would make a great nation to bless the world.  A priest is one who ministers the things of God for the people and on the global stage, Israel, as a kingdom of priests, were to be that conduit of Abraham’s blessing – ministering it to the nations of the earth who were encapsulated by Israel’s kingdom.  Before Israel gets into Canaan, they are reminded of this reality that God chose them instead of the other nations:

Deuteronomy 32:7 Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee. 32:8 When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. 32:9 For the LORD’S portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance. 32:10 He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. 

Just a side note, but observe the desert land (wilderness) connection in verse 10.

Anyway, God divided to the other nations their spoil and they went on their way, but chose Abraham to be where this kingdom of blessing would come from.  God gives Israel the kingdom purpose in Exodus 19, that is, to be priests as a holy (distinct) nation.  God reminds Israel before they get into the land where this kingdom was to blossom that they are His inheritance and His portion in the earth.  By the time of David, we get more detail about this kingdom being an everlasting kingdom, ruled by David’s throne (2Samuel 7).  Does this mean that David’s actual throne will be preserved for a new King to sit upon?  No, that’s not that idea when you read through Nathan’s prophecy.  He is assuring David that the kind of ruler David was is the kind of rulership that this everlasting kingdom will experience.  In other words, the seat of authority will mirror God’s own heart.  It isn’t the throne of Saul, who rules from a position of insecurity and pride.  It isn’t the throne of Solomon, who rules from a position of covetous conquest and idolatry, but it is the throne of David, a rule characterized after God’s own heart.  For that to be true, the King Himself would therefore need to be after God’s own heart.  After Israel is in exile (well after the time of David), Daniel interprets a dream of Nebuchadnezzar which would give Daniel hope that despite all of the kingdoms that would sweep the earth, there would ultimately be one kingdom that would rise that would never be defeated and would stand forever.  (Daniel 2:44-45)  Every Jew who came to the baptism of John would have known their text well enough to know exactly what John was talking about when he said, “the kingdom.”  We’ve already mentioned that this preparation for the King is marked by the inclusion of the outcast – a rulership after God’s own heart.  This kingdom is a domain where God reigns, righteousness rules, grace and mercy are the order of each day.  It is where the outsider is welcomed with the utmost divinely-driven hospitality–it isn’t just a revolving door where no one really notices who comes in or out, but like the return of the prodigal son, every outcast is welcomed to a heavenly banquet with a seat of prominence at the King’s table.  It is a place where the pretentious arrogant, however, find no seat at the table. It’s a domain where the King fights a war with sin and death and prevails and rescues His citizens from sin and death’s kingdom and presents the captives as the spoils of the war He fought. It is a reign defined by heavenly peace and not worldly conquest; where the citizens of this kingdom are not subjects, but co-regents with the King Himself. We come to learn about this kingdom through Christ and just how upside down it is compared to the earthly kingdoms that come and go.  Indeed, repent!  Get out of your own way and find peace in the One who declares Himself the Way.  (John 14:6)

John is connecting this message of the kingdom with preparation for the LORD.  He sees this kingdom and its King as synonymous.  In other words, a king with no dominion is no king and a dominion without a king is no kingdom(inion).  There is one kingdom and One King that John is interested in and is what the Old Testament Prophets have been pointing to.  When John says that he is preparing the way of the Lord, he is quoting from Isaiah 40, which in context, is about the comfort of God’s people.  How fitting that in the context of prophetic comfort, John finds himself fulfilling the preparation of the way for the One who would be Comfort of Israel–the very one that Simeon from Luke 2:25 was waiting on – the Consolation of Israel.  But, there’s more in Isaiah’s prophecy we should consider.

Isaiah 40:1 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. 40:2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins. 40:3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 40:4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: 40:5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. 40:6 The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: 40:7 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. 40:8 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever. 40:9 O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! 

A comfort for the people would be signified but the warfare of the people being accomplished (think Ephesians 4:1-11, remezing on Psalm 68) and their iniquity, pardoned.  Prepare the way of the LORD–the One who will accomplish these things.  Make straight in the DESERT (wilderness) a highway for our God.  John is preaching this message knowing full well what else accompanies the LORD’s arrival – that every valley would be exalted and every mountain and hill would be abased.  In other words, those who are poor in spirit and meek and LOWLY, like a valley, God would exalt in this kingdom.  The outcast and the outsider become the insider.  Everything crooked shall be made straight, and I can’t help but think about those who had crooked lives, not from wicked decisions, but from a health standpoint and Christ is going to heal the crooked and smooth out the rough places.  He’s going to bring this to His kingdom and it is in this that the glory of the LORD will be revealed–the inclusion and reception of the outcast is where the LORD’s glory will shine.  Therefore, run to greet Him – get up on the mountain for within you Jerusalem brings good tidings (the gospel) and in strength proclaim round about you, BEHOLD our God!  This is racing through John’s head as he recognizes what his ministry is all about.  And, as we know from the book of John, chapter 1, indeed John the Baptist will with strength declare, BEHOLD the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!

But, John isn’t just concerned with Isaiah’s words, for he is portraying something we’ve seen before.  John is a fiery desert preacher and his mannerisms and his life mimics greatly that of the prophet Elijah.  Although John will deny that he is Elijah (John 1:21) and we’ll see that Jesus does claim this (Matthew 11:14; 17:10-13), yet John’s preparation for the way of the LORD is nonetheless wrapped in the spirit of Elijah.  Remember that Elijah passed the torch, as it were, to Elisha, who wanted a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. John’s ministry and actions are calling attention back to Elijah and for good reason.  We have been told in the Old Testament that a Prophet, like Moses, would arise after Moses had died (Deuteronomy 18:15), but after the last Prophet writes his prophecy, we see that it isn’t only Moses whom this Prophet would be like, but likewise would be after the prophet Elijah (Malachi 4:4-6).  John is living out these similarities, not because he is trying to put on a show to convince the people he is Elijah, but to kick start their minds about the text so that when Elijah would come (Jesus Christ), they would be have had their hearts tuned by their scriptures to receive him.  At your leisure, note these similarities between Elijah and John the Baptist:

Similarity Elijah John the Baptist
Confronts Wicked Rulers 1Kings 18:17-18 Matthew 14:3-4
Wilderness Dwellings and Diets of the Poor 1Kings 17:3-6 Matthew 3:4
Rough Appearances 2Kings 1:8 Matthew 3:4
Rebuke Israel for Corruption in their Service to God 1Kings 18:21 Matthew 3:7-12
Led Many to Repentance 1Kings 18:30; 37-39 Matthew 3:5-6
Evil Women 1Kings 19:2 Matthew 14:6-11

The question of John the Baptist to all of us is this: are we preparing the way of the LORD for someone else around us?  Are we including the outsiders and speaking comfort?  Are we bringing good tidings to those around us?  In Luke 3:15, it says of John the Baptist, And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not.

John was so close to what the Messiah would be about that all men mused in their hearts as to whether he was the Messiah.  How close are we to our Lord to where all men would muse in their hearts about us, who it is we belong to?  John is fiery and his message is of great encouragement for the kingdom was at hand, yet rings a bell of humility for all us when we consider our own preparation for the LORD.

Next lesson, we’ll see the confrontation with the Sadducees and Pharisees and make some observations about Jesus’ baptism and start to see how this desert – this wilderness has a key role in the whole account, especially as we move into Chapter 4 with Christ’s temptation.

Our story continues…