This post completes the previous post commenting on Matt. 3:1-2, which can be found here.
John the Prophet (vv. 3-4)
Using the language of repentance in addition to an Old Testament association and combined with a specific “look”, it is clear that John presents himself as a prophet of God. A prophet, rightly understood, is a mouthpiece for God. A prophet speaks and does exactly what is commanded of him. The prophet’s words are God’s words. That is why there is a need to (a) know that the prophet speaks the truth and (b) to listen to the voice of the prophet. Here Matthew presents John as one who fulfills an Old Testament prediction as well as one who acts the part of an Old Testament persona.
Old Covenant Prediction (v. 3)
“For this is the one spoken of through Isaiah the prophet saying, ‘A voice crying: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight His paths.’”
Matthew connects John the Baptist with a quotation of Isaiah 40:3. It seems that Matthew understands John to be this voice who is crying in the wilderness. While Matthew seems to follow the LXX in this case, the MT of Isaiah reads a little differently. Rather than “A voice is crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…” (LXX) the Hebrew text emphasizes that “in the wilderness” is the place to prepare the Lord’s way rather than the place where the voice is crying: “A voice is crying, ‘in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord…’” (MT).
Considering Isaiah’s Context: The context of Isaiah 40 is that of comfort to a nation that is certain to enter exile. The chapter begins with a promise of comfort to Jerusalem because Yhwh has removed her iniquity (40:2). At this point, it is difficult to see any historical fulfillment of these words. When did God remove Jerusalem’s iniquity between the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the return to the land? This comfort is associated with the return of God’s glory (40:5). In Isaiah’s day it was not known that the glory of Yhwh departed the temple (Ezek. 9-11). The context of Isaiah 40:1-8 is not a comforting of the Babylonian exile, but an anticipation of Yhwh’s glory returning to the city (Ezek. 43:1-5) as part of Israel’s restoration (i.e., the inauguration of the kingdom). Isaiah’s point is simple: when all is finished, there will be a voice that calls the people into the wilderness for the purpose of preparing a highway for Yhwh to enter Jerusalem as king. Isaiah also anticipated a second Exodus, a second trip through the wilderness before the king would enter His capital. The people will seek Him (Hos. 3:5) and find Him in the wilderness (i.e., in humility before entering Jerusalem).
Considering Matthew’s Point: Isaiah’s prophecy does not highlight a specific person other than Yhwh. The people of Israel are implied as the recipients of the voice’s message and there is an assumption that the voice belongs to a person. When Matthew says, “this is the one spoken of through Isaiah the prophet…” he identifies John as this mysterious voice in the wilderness. John’s imperative to “repent!” is equivalent to the commands to prepare the Lord’s way and make straight the Lord’s paths. Not having a department of transportation, ancient roads (especially in desert regions) were constantly falling into disrepair. One of the best ways to set a good impression to a visiting dignitary would be to repair all the roads along the dignitary’s route. This act of preparation honors the dignitary and visibly demonstrates the host nation’s desire to receive him. But what if we’re talking about the rightful king returning from a long absence rather than a foreign dignitary? How much more should the people turn out to receive Him?
If king Yhwh is going to enter into Jerusalem and speak comfort to her whose iniquity has been removed, then the people must come out of their villages into the wilderness and repent. A second exodus presupposes a second conquest. A second conquest assumes a second leader, one who will successfully eradicate Israel of her enemies and restore her to the land. It is necessary that this second leader save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21) because it is their iniquity (Is. 40:2) that must be removed.
Old Covenant Persona (v. 4)
“Now this John had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt about his waist, also his provisions were locusts and wild honey.”
Two points are made regarding (1) John’s wardrobe and (2) John’s diet. It is essential that we recognize the irregular nature of this information. From this single verse, we are provided with more personal information about John the Baptist then we are about Jesus in the whole span of the gospels. We must understand that this level of detail is important and necessary. The only question remaining is, what does it mean?
The reference to John’s clothing, the garment of woven camel’s hair (as opposed to a camel pelt) and the leather belt is a clear reference to the garb used by Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Elijah’s controversial ministry brought him in continuous conflict with Israel’s leadership (1 Kings 17:1; 18:1-46; 2 Kings 1:1-18). Here is a man who was seldom seen in public, spending much of his time in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:3-18) or outside the land of Israel (1 Kings 17:2-5, 10-24). And yet, this was a man who was instantly recognized based upon his apparel. The person of Elijah becomes even more significant after reading Micah 4:5-6 where the prophet is said to return prior to the days of judgment (i.e., the great and terrible day of the Lord) in order to turn the hearts of Israel back to Yhwh. Elijah (or someone like Elijah) is linked with the Messianic expectation.
The reference to John’s diet is equally interesting, yet there is no single person referenced by a connection to locusts or wild honey. Both foods have several things in common: (a) they’re cheap and (b) their holy. It is impossible to obtain cheaper food than what is found in nature. The only thing locusts and wild honey cost John was the calories exerted in gathering them. In other words, John relied on God for every bite of sustenance that he consumed. Yet John’s faith did not have to cut corners. According to Leviticus 11:20-23, locusts are considered clean and are thus available for food in times of shortage. This is not an arbitrary distinction by God among other insects. The locust is usually associated with famine and plagues (Deut. 28:38 ff; Joel 1:1-7). By providing a clean insect as the source of judgment, God’s grace allowed Israel to eat in the midst of plague and to eat in such a way that demonstrates submission and repentance.
Putting all this together, John comes dressed as one of the most notorious prophets ever to address God’s people. Elijah came with a single message: Repent! Before Yhwh pulls the rug out from underneath you. Elijah is predicted to arrive just before a time of judgment and rejuvenation. Elijah provided nothing for himself, but wholly depended upon God for his care, protection, and preservation. John comes in exactly the same manner with a very similar message to a people much like the rebellious northern tribes under Ahab’s reign. Within 130 years of Elijah’s ministry the northern rebels of Israel would be carted off into captivity by the Assyrians. Within a hundred years after John’s ministry (as a result of the Kokhba Revolt against Rome 132-136 AD), Israel would once again be depopulated, and the people scattered across the face of the known world. John’s presence and presentation functions as a wakeup call for Israel. Time is running out. It is time to repent! Even John’s appearance preaches this sermon. A prophet has come to call the nation into the wilderness to repent in order to prepare the way of Yhwh to come and enter the land of promise to rule and reign in righteousness.
John the Priest (vv. 5-6)
While it is true that John came as a preacher (v. 1), he will forever be known as the Baptist or, the one who baptizes (ὁ βαπτιστὴς). The general idea of baptism is to wash, plunge, or immerse someone or something in water. The discussion between Baptists and Paedobaptists is related to this definition (there is no hint of sprinkling in the term baptism), though I fear that many are distracted away from the issue at hand. The points we must understand are three-fold: (1) the people of Judea understood precisely what John was doing, (2) baptism is a religious rite, and (3) John’s baptism is not directly equivalent with the baptism of the church (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:37-41).
New Covenant Interest (v. 5)
“Then Jerusalem and all Judea was coming out to him and all the regions of the Jordan”
Using both personification and hyperbole, Matthew speaks of Jerusalem as a single unit and Judea’s population with a single mind. The temporal adverb τότε (then) points to a time after John’s preaching of repentance. In other words, the people heard John’s message, understood it, and are now responding. The voice cried, “prepare a way in the wilderness!” And so, in the wilderness all Judea is coming to prepare the way for Yhwh.
It is no coincidence that the epicenter of this wilderness gathering is on the banks of the Jordan River. The point of a new Exodus is to provide a fulfillment of what the first Exodus, being a shadow of what was to come, lacked. The expectation is then to provide a fulfillment of the major events that followed the original Exodus, namely, a second conquest and subsequent kingdom. Did John not urge the proximity of the kingdom when he preached repentance (v. 2)? John understands the steps of logic used by the Old Testament prophets as follows: (1) Israel must be led out of the land and into the wilderness in order to experience a new Exodus, (2) this Exodus will lead to Israel’s repentance and conclude in a new conquest which will (3) conclude in an established kingdom. If repentance is the path to conquest, then the location matters. Just as Joshua’s (יהושׁע – Yhwh saves) conquest began on the banks of the Jordan (Josh. 3:1-17), so Jesus’ (יהושׁע/Ἰησοῦς – Yhwh saves) conquest will begin at the same place.
New Covenant Anticipation (v. 6)
“And they were being baptized in the Jordan River by him while confessing their sins.”
We must still identify exactly what this baptism means. One thing is for certain, this baptism has no connection to the Old Covenant. The verb βαπτίζω (to dip/wash/dunk) is used only in 2 Kings 5:14 to describe the dipping of Naaman the Syrian in the Jordan and in a variant reading of Is. 21:4. The nouns βαπτιστής (baptizer), and βαπτισμός (baptism) are not used at all in the Greek text of the LXX. In other words, if this is a way to describe a renewal of an Old Testament purification rite, then Matthew (and John) is using very new and very different language to describe it. Yet, the concept of baptism was not unknown to the Israelites of the 1st century.
While this is not a direct reference to the ceremonial washings prescribed in Torah for those who have become unclean (Lev. 11, 13, 14, 15), there certainly are some parallels. Those who have become unclean wash themselves while these people are clearly being baptized (ἐβαπτίζοντο) by John (ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ). Yet the baptism in connection with confession of sin indicates some sort of cleansing rite.
It is also observed that the Jews often used baptism as a means of initiating Gentile proselytes. While it is true that this sort of baptism was practiced in the later part of the 1st century, there is no record of this initiation in the days of John or before. In addition, these sorts of baptisms did not require the hand of an initiator to baptize the initiate. The proselyte would dip himself in the water rather than be baptized by someone else. Also, the implication of such a statement is that John was asking the people to repent of the Jewishness. While the brand of Judaism of the day was in fact utterly apostate, there is still a promise made by God to the nation of Israel that will not be thwarted (Is. 40:8). In other words, it is not known that this practice was common at this time and so, while there remains similarities, John’s baptism is not directly mimicking proselyte baptism.
It is better to understand this baptism in the context that John preached it and Matthew presents it. This ceremonial washing is presented in the context as a response (1) a call to repent, (2) because the kingdom is near, (3) an Elijah like character is preaching, and (4) a second conquest is anticipated. Scripturally, we know that a new Exodus (Hos. 2:14-20) and repentance (Hos. 3:5; Zech. 12:10) will precede the kingdom. Historically, we know that a conquest is required before the establishment of a kingdom. Prophetically and logically, we understand that there is a step in between this coming new Exodus and new conquest: a New Covenant.
The covenant that Jeremiah predicted (Jer. 31:31-34) that would be written on Israel’s hearts is developed by Ezekiel (Ezek. 36:22-36) and described as a washing or cleansing of Israel by Yhwh (v. 25). This cleansing will be followed by a new heart (v. 26) and the permanent indwelling Spirit of Yhwh (v. 27). To put it simply: John’s baptism, while not enacting the promised New Covenant, anticipates the New Covenant. Those who submit to John’s baptism are making a statement that they (a) turn away from the corruption of their day and turn back to Yhwh by (b) acknowledging their guilt and (c) trusting the coming New Covenant and the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) who will inaugurate and establish it. John’s baptism anticipates the washing of the New Covenant’s fulfillment when the kingdom from heaven invades earth.