John Prepares the Way
There’s something really special about the first sound after a long silence, isn’t there?
I remember when I was younger, in order to get us to be quiet, my older sister would have me and my younger sister play the “silent game.” She’d promise us a marble or a sticker from her collection if we would be absolutely silent for ten or twenty minutes. I think thirty may have been the longest we went.
And after all that time of saying nothing, of silence, it felt so good to just talk.
I’ve had some experiences in my life where the silence was more difficult and painful, and breaking the silence was far more significant. Times of pain and suffering or relational strife when nobody had anything to say. And yet how good it was when the first person spoke up, perhaps with quavering voice, challenging the silence with words of hope or comfort or reconciliation.
For most of Israel’s history, God had been in regular communication with them. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” says Hebrews 1:1. But after they returned to their land from the exile in Babylon, and fell right back into their old patterns of sin, God gave them one final warning through Malachi. And after that, silence. 400 years of silence.
All kinds of important events happened in that time, but nothing was heard from God. So we can only imagine what it was like when the silence was broken. “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (Matthew 3:1). Here at last was a prophet speaking from God.
The excitement that gripped the people would have been electric. Something really exciting and really big was happening. No wonder “Jerusalem and Judea and al the region about the Jordan” was going out to him, as verse 5 says.
That was a journey of about 20 miles or 32 kilometres or so. And just remember that they didn’t have cars back then. How long would it take you to walk 30 Km through the desert? But they did it, because this was not something to be missed. God was coming to visit His people and His prophet was here to prepare the way and nothing was going to hold them back.
So what did the people find when they arrived at the Jordan River? Who was there and what was he saying and what did it all mean? That’s what we’re going to explore today as we consider John and his role in preparing the way for Jesus.
We’re going to look at five elements today of John’s ministry. We’ll consider the message he proclaimed, the prophecies he fulfilled, the baptism he performed, the leaders he confronted, and finally the Messiah he pointed to.
1. The Message John Proclaimed
So lets begin with the message that John proclaimed. Verse 1 tells us that he came preaching, and verse 2 tells us what he was preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).
John’s message had two elements in it. First was a command of something they needed to do, which was repent. Second, there was the reason they needed to repent, which was that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
Let’s consider repentance for a few moments. “Repent” is a word that’s used a lot in the Bible, and it refers to turning away from our sin. It includes changing our minds about our sin, but this change of mind naturally leads to a change in action or behaviour regarding our sin. And along with this is an undercurrent of grief over our sin.
One of the best illustrations of repentance in Scripture is the Prodigal Son. When he came to his senses in the pigsty he had a change in his thinking that was connected to a change in his emotions that was connected to a change in behaviour. He went home, and not to negotiate.
So repentance involves our thinking, our behaviour, and our emotions in a decisive turn away from our sin and towards God. It’s more than just feeling guilty or feeling bad because we did something wrong. Repentance is when we see our sin for the ugly, horrible thing that it is, and we turn away from it and towards God in humility and brokenness.
And this is John’s message: the people needed to repent of their sins.
And why? Because “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2b). Oh, what a loaded phrase. We could spend all morning just on this phrase. And in many ways we are going to spend this whole series on this phrase, because everything Matthew writes helps us understand this good news of the kingdom.
But let’s begin by trying to unpack this phrase just a little bit. Let’s begin by remembering what Psalm 10:16 tells us: “The Lord is king forever and ever.” And God is not a king like earthly kings. He’s not confined to borders or territories here on this earth, and he doesn’t die. He is a divine, supernatural king. His kingdom is above all other earthly powers. He reigns forever.
That’s what is implied by this phrase “kingdom of heaven.” God’s heavenly rule. And John tells the people that the kingdom of heaven is at hand or has drawn near. God’s exalted, heavenly kingdom is not staying up there in heaven. The rule of God has drawn near. It is about to break into human history. God's divine kingdom is about to invade the kingdoms of this world, and the invasion cannot be stopped. It can only be prepared for.
And the way you prepare for this breaking-in of God’s kingdom is by repenting of your sin.
Sin is never ok. But sin is especially not ok when God comes to reign. God will not tolerate sin and rebellion in His kingdom. No traitors, no rebels, no evildoers allowed.
We see that in verse 10 which says, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And verse 12 says about the coming King, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
When God comes to reign, that means judgement for the wicked. And that’s scary stuff.
But that’s why this message of repentance is so joyful and hopeful. Because John doesn’t say, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand, so all you sinners are totally doomed.” No, he says, “Repent.”
In other words, God is giving you one final warning. One final chance. If you turn from your sin, you will find forgiveness and mercy in His kingdom. Because God’s reign is a saving reign. The kingdom of heaven is a safe place for sinners if they repent of and turn away from their sin.
And so this is John’s message. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. God’s heavenly rule was about to break into human history, and the way they needed to prepare was to turn from their sin so that they could be saved instead of perishing with the wicked.
2. The Prophecies That John Fulfilled
Next we want to consider the prophecies that John fulfilled. And what we’re gong to see here is that John and his message didn’t come out of nowhere. His role in preparing the way for Jesus had been prophesied about for centuries.
We see that in verse 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”’” (Matthew 3:3).
This is who John is. He is the long prophesied one who has arrived to prepare the way for the Lord.
But do you remember last week? Do you remember that when Matthew quotes the Old Testament, he very often has more than just that one verse in mind? He’s got the whole section or chapter in mind?
And that’s true here. He’s quoting from Isaiah 40, but if we turn to Isaiah 40 we see that there’s a much bigger context here that’s so important to understand. Isaiah prophesied around 150 years before the exile to Babylon, and the first 39 chapters of his book contain many promises of this coming judgement. Just look up at verses 6-7 of chapter 39: “Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
But when we get to chapter 40, there is a major shift in the book. Isaiah’s perspective jumps forward 200 years, and for most of the rest of his book he writes not to his current generation but to the exiles in Babylon, 200 years in the future. And through him God promises that He Himself is going to come and rescue them from exile and bring them back to their land in a great second exodus, once again leading His people through the wilderness back home.
And this is the whole big idea introduced by these wonderful words in Isaiah 40:1-2: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
The exile is going to end, their punishment will be complete, and God will visit them with salvation. And so, verse 3 tells us, the way needs to be prepared for Him. The path through the wilderness needs to be made straight for God to come and lead His people home.
And so we read in verses 3-5: “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’” (Isaiah 40:1–5).
Now obviously there’s some symbolism happening here. God doesn’t actually need a path to walk on. This language of lifting up the valleys and making low the mountains is speaking about the people being ready for God to come and save them.
And Matthew says that this passage, this voice crying in the wilderness, is about John the Baptist. And he’s actually making three important statements as he says this.
Number one, he’s saying that this great second exodus promised by Isaiah was never completed. Sure, the people came home from Babylon, but that was about it. Matthew is recognizing that they were still basically in exile in their own land. Still waiting for that voice to comfort them and tell them that their sin was dealt with and God was finally coming to save them.
Second, he’s saying that this long-awaited voice was finally here in the person of John. Which means that all of these things that Isaiah promised in these final chapters were finally about to happen.
And third, he’s making an incredible statement about the identity of Jesus. Just think: who is that voice in the wilderness preparing the way for? “The Lord.” YHWH. And who came after John? Jesus. Which means that Jesus is YHWH. Jesus is God.
Now believe it or not, there’s more here in terms of the prophecy that John fulfills. And we see this in verse 4, which says,
“Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Have you ever wondered why we’re told about John’s wardrobe? Like, why does this matter?
It matters because this type of clothing is associated in Scripture with the prophet Elijah. In 2 Kings 1:8, King Azariah is asking his servants about a man they were talking to. “They answered him, ‘He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.’ And he said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’”
Garment of hair, leather belt: that’s Elijah. Later on we read that false prophets would dress up like this in order to fool people (Zechariah 13:4). So when John shows up dressing this way, everyone is going to think one thing: Elijah.
And this is important because of another set of prophecies about the coming of God to His people. In the book of Malachi, the last prophet before the 400 years of silence, God promised to come and visit His people. And here are the last words of this last prophet:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:5–6).
So before God comes, Elijah comes. And here’s John, dressed like and acting like Elijah, talking about someone who is coming after him. And that means one thing: God Himself is coming to save His people and judge the wicked.
No wonder the kingdom of heaven is at hand! The heavenly King himself is drawing near. And John fulfills these prophecies form hundred of years before as he helps people get ready for the King’s arrival.
3. The Baptism that John Performed
One of the main ways John did that was through baptism, which is the third aspect of his ministry we’ll consider this morning. Those who came out to him signified their repentance by being “baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (verse 6).
The word for baptize means to immerse or to dip or—by extension— wash, and has its roots in Jewish practice. Ceremonial washings or ceremonial baths were a part of Jewish practice in those days. Their synagogues actually had a ceremonial bath that looked something like a baptistry.
There’s some connection here to the story of Naaman, who dipped himself in the Jordan river seven times in order to be cleansed from his leprosy. Baptism symbolized being cleaned and washed, and so it was a fitting symbol for those who were confessing their sins.
Baptism was also connected to the great Biblical stories about water being used for judgement. Think about the flood or the Red Sea. When you were baptized, you were reenacting the story of Noah or the Israelites who passed safely through the waters of God’s judgement in order to find salvation on the other side.
Baptism also symbolized death. Your old way of life was dead and over, and you were beginning anew. And in this context it’s really noteworthy that Gentiles who converted to Judaism during this time period underwent a form of baptism. It was a fitting symbol for such a dramatic shift in life.
And so can you see how strong of a statement John is making by requiring these people, these Jewish people, to be baptized as they confess their sins? He’s telling them that being Jewish was not enough. Being circumcised was not enough. They needed to change, they needed a new life, just as much as the Gentiles, in order to get ready for the coming of their king.
4. The Leaders Whom John Confronted
This idea that being Jewish is not enough connects us up to our fourth stop this morning, where we find the leaders that John confronted. After telling us that everyone was coming to be baptized, verse 7 tells us that “many of the Pharisees and Sadducees” were “coming to his baptism.”
Now for most of us, the words “Pharisees and Sadducees” cue up the bad guy music starts in our heads. These guys are trouble and we know it.
But if we lived in John’s day, and if we saw these guys walk up to the Jordan river, we would not be prepared for what’s about to happen. Because we probably would have looked at one or both of these groups as the good guys.
Just think about the Pharisees. After centuries of God’s people worshiping idols and ignoring His law, here comes these guys who were passionate for keeping God’s law. They were so careful about keeping the law that they invented a whole bunch of extra rules to keep them from ever getting close to breaking one of the actual rules. Talk about being on fire for the Lord! After Israel’s history, after the exile, how awesome was that?
The Sadducees were a different type of group who were involved with the administration of the temple. They were powerful and had a major role in the political and religious leadership of the people. You didn’t mess with them.
And these two groups of powerful, elite religious leaders walk up to John. What do you think his opening phrase will be?
“You brood of vipers!” (Matthew 3:7). Do you know what a brood us? It’s a bunch of babies around a mother. “Brood of vipers” is like saying “sons of snakes.” It’s saying that these guys are poison, their teaching is poison, their very nature and identity is poison because they are the offspring of snakes.
Now this is offensive language to anybody. But it’s particularly offensive to a Jewish person who valued their lineage so highly. They were a son of Abraham, a son of Israel, not the son of a snake.
But John presses on. Look at what he says next: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7). Umm, John? You’ve been warning everyone to flee from the coming wrath.
But now John is saying, “Who told you to show up? Because it wasn’t me.”
It’s like someone stands up at your workplace or classroom and says, “I’m having a party tonight, and you all need to come.” But as you walk towards the party that evening, they meet you at the door and say, “Who invited you here?”
What they’re saying is, “You don’t belong here. You are not a real part of this group that I invited.” And that’s what John is saying to these guys. “You don’t belong here. You’re not a part of God’s people. You’re sons of snakes.”
And you can imagine their objection. “Of course we belong here. We’re not the offspring of snakes. We’re children of Abraham. I can trace my genealogy all the way back.”
And John cuts them off at the pass in verse 9: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:9–10).
Do you hear what John is saying here? “You’re a physical descendant of Abraham? So what. That gives you no more of an advantage than this rock over there. If you don’t repent, God will destroy you in His judgement. And he’ll keep His promise to Abraham with or without you.”
What John says here is very similar to an interaction Jesus had with the religious leaders in John 8. “They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did… You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:39, 44).
John and Jesus are making the point that being a son of Abraham is about so much more than what family you were born into. The real sons of Abraham are those who repent and trust in their Messiah.
That’s why Galatians 3:7 says, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” Verse 29 says, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (See also Romans 4:11-12.)
This is the consistent teaching of John and Jesus and Paul. And we know that this didn’t make them ignore the Jewish people. That’s who John and Jesus focused their ministries on. The synagogue was the first place Paul went in any town he visited. But their goal was to take physical sons of Abraham and make them real sons of Abraham through faith in Christ. Just being Jewish wasn’t enough.
And so John calls out these leaders because he knows that they have no repentance, no faith, no submission to God’s rule. They are sons of serpents. And unless they repent, there will be only judgement for them.
5. The King John Pointed To
So we’ve seen the message John proclaimed, the prophecies he fulfilled, the baptism he performed, and the leaders he confronted. I want us to end today by reflecting finally on the king whom John pointed to.
John describes that king in verses 11-12: “I baptize you with water for 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 fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John’s baptism is just a symbol pointing to the reality to come. The King Himself will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
God had long promised that in the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit would be given to His people (Ezekiel 36:26-27). And this promise went along with promises of judgement for those who would not repent of their sin (Malachi 4:1). And these twin realities will come in the hand of the King whom John prepares the way for.
Now once again we need to notice what this says about Jesus. God promised He would give the Holy Spirit, He would judge the wicked. And yet John here is saying that the person who will do these things is going to wear sandals. What a powerful statement about Jesus being God in the flesh.
As we think about this, and try to bring this all together this morning, I want to simply ask us if this is how we know and understand Jesus.
Think for a moment of a phrase like “Christ-like.” If someone says to you, “We want to act in a Christ-like manner,” what comes to mind? Is there a chance that we sometimes use that phrase as a stand-in for “nice”? Or to describe being little bit soft, a little bit limp-wristed, a little bit of a pushover?
Do you think we need some more of John the Baptist’s perspective in our lives? Might we need to remember that Jesus is God in sandals, and that He will sift between the righteous and the wicked, and who will burn up the wicked with unquenchable fire, like verse 12 says?
Do you think we need to be reminded that Jesus is the king, a real king, and that when He speaks, we obey, no questions asked? Is it important for us to remember that His kingdom has broken into this world, and that a church like ours is an embassy and outpost of His kingdom? Don’t we need the constant reminder that we’re not a social club but a political body organized under the authority of King Jesus?
Do you think it’s important for us to remember that repentance is still our proper response to this kingdom of Jesus? That all across the New Testament we see that salvation only comes to the repentant (2 Corinthians 7:9-10, 12:21, 2 Timothy 2:25)?
This doesn’t mean we earn our salvation by repenting. It does mean, like A. W. Pink said so well, that “salvation is a free gift, but an empty hand must receive it, and not a hand which still tightly grasps the world.”1A.W. Pink, "Signs of the Times," Studies in the Scriptures, 16:373-375.
Are you still holding on to the world? Holding on to pet sins because you’re not willing to do whatever it takes to cut them off? Do you need to be reminded that Jesus came to save us from our sins, not in our sins?
And in this setting, do you think we might need to be reminded of the importance of baptism? Baptism is so much richer and more meaningful for us today because we have the added meaning of being buried and raised with Jesus. But baptism is still where it starts.
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…’” (Matthew 28:18–19).
Every month when we celebrate communion I say something like, “If you know Jesus as your saviour, and are following Him as your Lord, we invite you to participate with us.”
We’re going to do that again next week. And the question I want to ask again is: can you really say you’re following Jesus as your Lord if you haven’t submitted to His command to be baptized?
We’re doing at least one baptism next week. We’re setting up the tank on Friday. And if you haven’t been baptized, there’s nothing stopping you. I’d love to talk to you this week or in one of the coming weeks and we’ll make it happen.
If you do know Jesus as your Lord and you’ve repented of your sins and you’ve sealed that through baptism, then I encourage you this week to live out your baptism through your submission to Christ, continual repentance, constant dependance upon His Holy Spirit, and a heart for those who have not repented and who will be swept away in the judgement unless they turn.
We’re going to respond to these truths now in a song that turns our hearts to our king and receives His gracious reign in our lives. Let this be the spirit and the posture that we maintain as we head out into whatever God has for us this week.