Leaving Jerusalem

John the Baptist is one of the great – and perhaps one of the most mysterious – characters of the New Testament. We see him only in glimpses in the four Gospels; preaching in the wilderness outside of Jerusalem, dressed in strange clothes, baptizing the people of Israel (including Jesus, as we will address in the next post), and eventually suffering imprisonment and execution under King Herod.

But what little we do know about John the Baptist is certainly enough for us to draw several conclusions. And to explore what Matthew wants us to know and to believe about this man.
One of the first things Matthew wants to make clear about John is that both his arrival and his identity were prophesied beforehand. Matthew points to a specific passage that he sees as pointing to John as the one who will announce the Messiah:

“The Voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’”
-Isa. 40:3

This prophecy was originally delivered to King Hezekiah, both announcing the coming exile in Babylon, and calling the exiled people to expect both rescue and salvation – a salvation that would be announced by this voice “in the wilderness.”

Matthew then couples this expectation with a prophecy from the book of Malachi, that the coming Messiah would be preceded by the return of “the prophet Elijah” (Mal. 4:5). In fact, these strange garments John is seen wearing are identical to the way Elijah was described in 2 Kings 1:8. Therefore, Matthew is both telling and showing us that John is not just another preacher or another prophet – he is the prophet; the expected one.

And indeed, it seems that even many of the Jews in that day understood this. John’s bold, condemning pronouncement, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (v. 2) cut to the heart of the people, so that “all of Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (vv. 5-6).

Now, there is just too much here to fully unpack, but I want to point to one significant element that can be easy to overlook: John’s message is calling the people out of the city, away from the temple (the place where “true worship” was supposed to take place), and back into the wilderness, all the way to the Jordan river – the same river through which Israel had passed in order to come into the Promised Land!

Matthew is beginning to establish important themes that will be further developed and emphasized in Jesus’ ministry. It is easy to see Jesus’ strong message of condemnation against the Jews of His day (beginning in chapter 21) as a bit jarring, but the groundwork is being laid here at the very beginning of the book. Matthew wants to make clear that the Israel of Jesus’ day is not the true Israel. These people – and particularly their leaders – have all but abandoned the God of Israel. And instead of being a place of holiness Israel has become a dwelling place of demons (hence Jesus’ emphasis on casting out demons during His ministry).

Where the focus of Israel’s worship has long been directed to the temple, the ministry of John prepares the way for Jesus by calling people to leave the city, return to the wilderness, and seek a new form of purification (baptism), not found in the temple sacrifices or offerings. 

He is calling the people to abandon their fallen “kingdom” and embrace an entirely new type of kingdom.

This theme is made even more explicit as John is approached by the Jewish leaders (Pharisees and Sadducees) in verse 7. Before they can even speak with him, he accuses them of being “brood of vipers”, even though they call themselves “children of Abraham” (vv. 7-9).

This is no ordinary insult (as if it was a common thing in the first century to call people “brood of vipers”). Instead, John is calling these Jewish leaders back to Genesis 3, where the central conflict of the Bible was introduced as God placed a curse upon the serpent (“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise your heal” – Gen. 3:15). The Bible is the story of the conflict between these two “families” – the offspring of the serpent, and the offspring of the woman. The people of God – a line of people that would one day lead to the Messiah – were the seed of the woman, while the enemies of God, the evil and wicked kingdoms of the world, were counted alongside the devil, as the seed of the serpent (cf. Jn. 8:44).

Are you beginning to see the importance of John’s accusation? To be called “brood (or offspring) of vipers” is to be called children of the devil and to be counted outside of God’s promises! John is setting up the arrival of the true Messiah – the ultimate “offspring of the woman” – by declaring that membership in His family would not come through a family lineage, but through faith and obedience in Him. The works of the people of Israel were about to be judged, and that is why John was so urgently calling them to repentance!

John is heralding the coming of Jesus by announcing that this is good news to any who would be willing to hear Him, to any who would humble themselves and follow Him – but a fearful thing to those who would cling to their old ways instead of truly seeking the heart of God.