In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.’ ”
Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptist makes a somewhat abrupt appearance in Matthew 3 some 20 years after the end of Matthew 2, where readers of that time would have already been familiar with accounts of him in the other gospels. He was the bridge between the Old Testament and New Testament, as the “Elijah” that was prophesied in Malachi 4:5-6 who “will prepare the way before” Jesus (Malachi 3:1). John’s identity as the prophesied “Elijah” is alluded to by his appearance, being “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist (Matthew 3:4)”, resembling Elijah the prophet (2 Kings 1:8). In prophesying that John would go before Jesus “in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17),” the angel that visited Zacharias makes the figurative interpretation of “Elijah” in Mal 4:5-6. More directly, Jesus identified John as “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14).
John bridges the Old and New Testaments from the Malachi prophecy to his emergence in the gospels as God breaks the 400 years of prophetic silence in between. His preparing “of the way before Jesus” involved preparing God’s people for Jesus by turning them to obedience, such as the turning of fathers’ hearts to their children and the turning of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just (Luke 1:17). As John called people to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2), he was setting the context that God’s kingdom had partially arrived and so, there was still time, but increasing urgency, to turn to God. Just as John’s call was for all who came to him, the call to repentance is as relevant for all Christians today as it was for the Jews in John’s day.
Character Traits of John the Baptist
John was secure about his identity. Despite being the last prophet (Matthew 11:13) and priest (Luke 1:5) of the ending temple system (Matthew 11:13), and having lost followers to Jesus (John 3:26), John embraced that he was Jesus’ forerunner and ultimately superseded by Him (John 3:27-34). He even went so far as to proclaim that he was “not worthy to carry” Jesus’ sandals (Matthew 3:11). Jesus superseded John in every area, having a ministry of baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11), being a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:10), fulfilling “the Law” and “the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17), and being the judge of all (Matthew 3:12). Likewise, we must embrace our identity under Jesus, and our ministries must ultimately serve and depend on Him.
John was a man of the wilderness, being both a place of difficult preparation and ministry. He was part of the Qumran sect, an isolated community of ascetic Jews that, apart from having to bear with the living conditions, were strict with their lifestyle, including diet and dressing. Naturally, God had used such circumstances to prepare, strengthen and mature John for his ministry. When it came time to prepare God’s people, John’s outreach was in the wilderness as well (Matthew 3:5-6). Those who came to him had to leave the comforts, but hang-ups, of their institutional religious settings. We do not like being in the “wilderness”, but it is a part of the Christian life. Looking at the lives of the likes of Moses, David, Paul, and especially Jesus, God will use difficult “wilderness” circumstances at times to prepare and strengthen us for our assignments. This might also involve us stepping out of our institutional church settings.
John was uncompromising with righteousness. In preparing God’s people, he not only called them to repentance (Matthew 3:2) but took pains to call them out for their sins (Matthew 3:7), show the way to repentance (Matthew 3:8), correct misconceptions and presumptions (Matthew 3:9), and warn of God’s final judgment (Matthew 3:10). This remained consistent with people of authority, as with John’s confrontations with the Pharisees and Sadducees for their hypocrisy (Matthew 3:7-9), and King Herod for his adultery (Matthew 14:4). As we stand for truth and righteousness in an increasingly relativistic culture, it becomes more apparent that we must exercise biblical integrity and confront people when necessary, regardless of how difficult it is.
John endured rejection. Apart from having an odd appearance and diet (Matthew 3:4), he did not exactly follow the political sensitivities of his day, as with his confrontations with those in authority. At the end of his life, this culminated in his imprisonment (Matthew 14:3) and beheading (Matthew 14:10). Like John, being a Christian might make us stand out uncomfortably, put us in difficult situations with people, and even cost us our personal freedoms and lives.
As we look at the life of John the Baptist, there are certainly many lessons to learn and traits to emulate. John’s firm identity in the Lord was developed by God in the wilderness, and this tied him through the difficulties in his alignment (preparation) and assignment, where he had to stand firm for righteousness and even endure rejection. This prepared and made him ready for Jesus, just as he prepares and makes others ready. As our Lord Jesus draws closer, will we heed His warnings and make the choice to prepare and be made ready for Him?