Last time we saw how a little religious and socioeconomic background affected our understanding of Matthew 2. We can also take the same approach with the third chapter of Matthew and see how it can help us understand the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist.
Matthew 3 opens with John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness of Judea. If John were a church planter it would be an odd place to start—in the middle of nowhere. Yet this is exactly where John’s ministry began, and for two good reasons. The first reason is self-evident from the passage before us. Matthew writes, “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight”’” (3:3). In other words, John’s ministry in the wilderness was a direct fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, which spoke of a new deliverance by God for his people.
The second reason John’s ministry began in the wilderness was because that was most likely the place he grew up. Luke tells us that John was born to very old parents, who probably didn’t live long enough to raise him. He may have then moved in with relatives in the wilderness east of Jerusalem. Some scholars even speculate that John was brought up by people connected to the Essenes, a Jewish sect which had separated from the rest of Jewish culture at that time. This may partially explain why John’s dress and diet were so unusual. “John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (3:4). Of course, John’s appearance also had a connection with one of Israel’s greatest prophets, Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 1:8), but it also fit the rugged and humble dress of those living on the outskirts of society. His food, also, would have connected him with the very poor, as well as with those very pious in their dietary laws.
The result of this information about John’s ministry, appearance and diet is that he would have fit the part of an outsider, one sent to rouse Israel and prepare them for the coming of the Messiah. Not only did he fit the part physically and socially, but Matthew reminds his readers that he was the fulfillment of that Old Testament expectation.
Another unique part of John’s ministry was that he baptized those who came to him. This may not seem all that unusual to most modern people. Baptism in one form or another has been a part of the Christian tradition for centuries. It was also something that first century Jews would have been familiar with, also. But the uniqueness of John’s baptism was in those who were being baptized. At that time, baptism was conferred on those who were becoming converts to Judaism. That is, outsiders were baptized as a sign that they were joining the Jewish religion. But John was offering baptism to Jewish people. It is no wonder then, that the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to witness this baptism (3:7). John baptized “with water for repentance” (3:11), preparing the people for the coming kingdom. His message was to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). John’s message (3:7-12) was one of judgment against the sins of the people. They needed to get ready for the coming of the Promised One, and baptism was the sign that they were prepared.
In the midst of John’s message to the Pharisees and Sadducees he referred to the coming of one “mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (3:11). This seems an odd reference for modern readers. But what John was saying essentially was that he was not even worthy to be the Messiah’s slave. It was the slave who often had the responsibility of carrying his master’s sandals when he traveled. Compared to the greatness of the Messiah, John was not even worthy to carry out this humble task.
Finally, reading on in the passage we see that Jesus himself came to be baptized by John in the Jordan river. Immediately following his baptism Matthew writes that, “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (3:16). Additionally, a voice spoke from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). Many Christians see in this a picture of the trinity, the fact that God the Father, speaking from heaven; God the Spirit, coming down in the form of a dove; and God the Son, in the person of Jesus, were all present in one place, yet in three distinct persons. While this scene certainly does reinforce this particular doctrine, it was probably not the immediate reference in the mind of Matthew’s first readers. Instead, they would have likely recalled the many occurrences of God’s Spirit coming on individuals in the Old Testament Scripture. The Spirit of God came on a person to confirm his calling for a particular task or ministry. The voice from heaven, too, would have reminded readers of the authoritative voice of God which spoke the world into existence and spoke His word to the people of Israel.
In conclusion, the background of this passage helps us to get a grasp on the nature of the John’s ministry and how he would have been perceived by his audience. Something radical was happening in the land. God’s Messiah was coming, and John was just the right person to prepare His way. The people themselves needed to not only hear the message but to respond to it by confessing their sins and preparing their hearts for the Messiah’s coming. And when He did come, Jesus earthly ministry was confirmed by God through the voice, the Spirit, and the prophetic ministry of John.
How would you have responded to the announcement of the kingdom?