After describing the events in the birth and childhood of the Messiah, the Tax Collector jumps forward several years when introducing the next major figure in his narrative. John the Baptist figures heavily into the subject of fulfilled prophecy. Matthew takes great care to introduce him properly, but progressively. Matthew does not give us all the information up front. Here in Matthew 3, John is linked with Isaiah 40:3 and a description that may remind us of Elijah the prophet. Later in Matthew 11 he will link him with Malachi 3:1 and the prophet Elijah; then in Matthew 17 Jesus alludes to the prophet Elijah and Matthew inserts the connection to John the Baptist. Mark gives both prophecies up front in Mark 1:2-3. Luke has more information regarding the birth of John the Baptist, but is not as thorough when developing the overall progression of his ministry and how it relates to fulfilled prophecy. John the apostle records that John the Baptist preferred to identify himself with The Voice in the Wilderness rather than with the prophet Elijah, see John 1:21-23. But the later developments in the life of John the Baptist are completely unrecorded by John the apostle. Matthew the Tax Collector seems to be a bit distinguished when it comes to the subject of fulfilled prophecy and it shows here when we examine everything he has to write about John.
Matthew 3:1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 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.’” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Matthew points out that this Voice in the Wilderness is an appearance of a long expected herald which Isaiah foretold many hundreds of years ago. John the Baptist now appears like some prophet from long ago crying out his message in the middle of nowhere. His message is simple, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” There is no long explanation for what this means. But the prophets of old didn’t necessarily explain what they meant when they gave their messages of repentance to the people. It may have been his simplicity that prompted many Israelites to confess their sins and submit themselves to John’s baptism. He was a simple man with simple clothes and a simple diet crying out a simple message. He doesn’t have any ulterior motives. He’s not aligned with any political faction. He just wants repentance.
In regards to the way he dressed, there is a direct similarity to the dress of the prophet Elijah. In II Kings 1:8 we have a description of Elijah which prompts wicked King Ahaziah to immediately identify him as Elijah the Tishbite. It seems that Elijah’s clothing was his trademark of sorts. He wore a garment of hair with a leather belt around his waist. The KJV has translated the phrase meaning he was a hairy man, which is a possibility. However, which hair would this be referring to? Everyone had a beard in those days. His garment would have covered most of his body meaning it would have been unlikely that the messenger who described him would have described him as a hairy man based on body hair. Instead, it seems more likely that it is a garment of hair especially since a garment of hair is how one was identified as a prophet, see Zechariah 13:4. So when Matthew describes John’s manner of dress it is for the specific intent of identifying him with being the type of prophet that we saw in Elijah. John’s simple diet also reflected the simple ways of Elijah as he was in the wilderness living off the land, I Kings 17:2-7, or as he lived with a widow woman who had only one type of food which God miraculously provided, I Kings 17:8-16. Later, Matthew will have more direct language which shows that John is the fulfillment (or should I write “A fulfillment”) of prophecies which stated that Elijah would come.
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
This passage in Isaiah begins a long, in-depth oracle which we will probably never completely understand this side of the resurrection. Isaiah 40-66 has been attributed by many people to be authored by someone other than Isaiah, deeming it to be a late addition to Isaiah’s actual prophecies. I think it’s ironic that these modern scholars think they know more than Matthew the Tax Collector who wrote almost 2000 years closer to the situation and while he was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Matthew attributes the prophecy to Isaiah, and in my simple way, I leave it at that. I have also studied the book of Isaiah and believe it was entirely authored by the same person.
Isaiah 40:1-2 prefaces the entire section as a proleptic blessing upon Jerusalem, but the blessing will only be fulfilled after Jerusalem receives double for all her sins. The ensuing prophecies will unfold exactly how Jerusalem’s sin will be brought upon her, but will describe the subsequent blessings as well. Situated at the beginning is this Voice in the Wilderness just shouting out of nowhere. Here in the original prophecy, it is not so much the person doing the crying or calling, but the focus is on the message that the voice delivers. The first section in verses 3-5 focus on the command that the voice gives to those who hear. Those listening are to prepare the way for the LORD. The preparation involves building a highway in the desert. Then there is the proclamation that every valley will be lifted up and every mountain made low. It’s unclear here whether or not this leveling of the earth is the result of man’s efforts to prepare for the LORD or if the LORD accomplishes this after He is revealed. One thing is clear though, all flesh will see the glory of the LORD.
The second section in verses 6-8 comprise the meat of the message that the voice is supposed to be crying out. You can see this by the back and forth between the command for the voice to cry and the voice inquiring back, “What shall I cry?” The instruction is for the voice to preach on how life is brief and slated for destruction. The metaphor given is that all flesh is as grass and flowers. Even though flowers are beautiful, their beauty is short lived and will soon die. It is the same with humanity. There may be much beauty associated with mankind, but it is short lived. With one breath of the LORD this beauty will begin to wither. The main point seems to be that at any point in time, God can step into the affairs of man and bring swift judgment upon him.
This should explain why the apostles clearly associated this prophecy with the preaching of John the Baptist. John literally was in the wilderness crying out a message that was consistent with the voice of Isaiah 40:6-8. Even though these verses are not quoted by Matthew, Mark, or Luke, the context demands it. John announced the kingdom of heaven being at hand, and in relation to this also preached two metaphors for judgment upon mankind, but probably more specifically upon the nation of Israel. The first metaphor is in reference to fruit trees being chopped up for firewood, Matthew 3:10. If a fruit tree is producing fruit, then it would be foolish to chop it down. However, if there was no fruit then it’s a waste of space in the orchard. This is how John condemns the Pharisees and Sadducees when they came to him for baptism. They had not confessed their sins. They had no fear of the judgment to come. So why are they coming for baptism? The second metaphor is that of the purging of the threshing floor. At the time when wheat is harvested, there would be a process whereby the chaff would be separated from the wheat. The grains of wheat were heavier while the chaff was lighter and would drift in the wind. After the separation of the wheat from the chaff, the wheat would be gathered into the barn while the chaff would be burned with fire, and here it is termed unquenchable fire. In both metaphors, the idea of God’s judgment is looming over the nation of Israel. In the one, unfruitful trees are chopped down while fruitful trees are left alive; in the other, all are together at harvest, but there is a separation between the two elements.
The aspect of John’s ministry that was not foreseen in Isaiah 40 is that the voice would be the forerunner or herald for the Messiah. There is a preparation for the LORD, there is a message of judgment, but there is nothing here in Isaiah 40:3-8 about this voice announcing the appearing of the Messiah, unless you take the whole prophecy of Isaiah 40-66 which abounds with references to the Messiah, or the Servant of kings, Isaiah 49:7. My point is that it took insight and study to find this fulfillment of prophecy. Many would overlook it had not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John pointed it out. This is how prophecy works. It is not always obvious, but once you see it, it is hard to dismiss. Each prophecy does not contain every detail, but it may contain complimentary details that are meant to coincide with other prophecies which are being fulfilled in the same person or at the same time. In this case, Isaiah 40:3-8 and Malachi 3:1 will both be demonstrated by Matthew to be fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist.
The element that is present in Isaiah, which Matthew does not overtly state is present in John’s preaching, is that of the perpetual indelibility and immovability of the Word of God. John warns of the judgment to come and implies that those who repent and bear fruit will be spared. The wheat will be gathered into the barn, which assumes the righteous will live on after the judgment, but there is nothing here about the Word of the LORD enduring forever as Isaiah 40:8 states as a part of the voice. However, this theme is not at all absent from Matthew’s gospel. Twice in the words of Christ Matthew records this very idea. In Matthew 5:17-18 Christ states that the law has an endurance that will outlast heaven and earth. Later in Matthew 24:35, Jesus asserts the authority of the audible words that He speaks putting them on par with the law itself. These spoken words by Christ will also outlast heaven and earth. So while Matthew does not quote Isaiah 40:8, the later inferences should be obvious. This is also how prophecy works. There is nothing preventing us from seeing the connection with the voice crying out in Isaiah 40:8 and the later words of Christ which affirm this very truth, especially in light of the fact that John’s messages were introductory to the messages, ministry, and miracles of the Messiah. There is a continuity here showing forth the universal truth that God’s Word endures forever.
John appears like one of the prophets of old, but with a new message. The Voice in the Wilderness cries out that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. With his simple ways he is hard to ignore. The Pharisees and Sadducees come to him but are treated as if they have not repented. While the events in John’s life fulfill prophecy, it is important not to overlook that the very life of John is fulfillment of prophecy. Matthew words it, “This is he who was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet.” The prophecy comes overflowing off the pages of scripture into real time and space. Here is John standing before the nation of Israel boldly proclaiming God’s impending doom upon all who do not repent. Further, he also proclaims there is One mightier coming soon to a river near you.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman