prophecy from Isaiah
to introduce readers to Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist:
“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, ESV).
Matthew’s Jewish audience was well acquainted with the scroll of Isaiah and this passage extracted from an extended prophecy about
the end-times restoration of Israel
(Isaiah 40:1—45:25). Matthew confirms that
John the Baptist is
“the voice” ushering in the beginning of God’s glorious future kingdom with the arrival of the King. John’s role was to prepare the way for the King’s advent.
Before John the Baptist was born, an angel of the Lord visited his father, Zechariah, explaining, “Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. . . . He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord” (Luke 1:13–17, NLT). After the baby was born, Zechariah prophesied, “And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord” (Luke 1:76, NLT). Later, John the Baptist connected the dots between his mission and Isaiah’s prophecy, testifying, “I am a voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord,—just as Isaiah the prophet said” (John 1:23, CSB). John declares that Israel’s long-anticipated Savior is about to step onto the world stage.
Through the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Zechariah, and John the Baptist himself, God makes it clear that this rugged wilderness preacher is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
But how did John prepare the way of the Lord and make His paths straight? His nickname—“John the Baptist”—gives us a clue.
John the Baptist beckoned the Jewish people to repent of their sins and be baptized—an act that outwardly demonstrated the inward dedication of their lives to God through immersion in water.
Repentance is the inescapable beginning of faith, and baptism represented a new way of doing things for the Jews. As a religious practice, baptism was generally only observed by outsiders (Gentiles) converting to Judaism. To prepare the way of the Lord and make His paths straight, John needed the Jews to understand that their ancestral heritage would not save them. Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior would require a personal commitment—a turning away from sin and a new life of devotion to God. John’s baptism “called for repentance from sin,” meaning real-life change as well as belief in Jesus Christ
(see Acts 19:1–7, NLT).
As John encountered Jesus face to face, he understood that his life mission was to reveal to Israel that Christ was the Son of God and their long-awaited Messiah. He prepared the way of the Lord by introducing Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and “the Chosen One of God” (John 1:29–34, NLT). Because of John’s ministry, multitudes of sinners put their faith in Jesus Christ (John 10:39–42).
Highways in the ancient world were built for kings to travel. When a king planned to visit a city, it was the custom to build or prepare a road for him and his entourage to use as they approached the city. The path would be made as straight and level as possible (see Isaiah 40:3–4). Isaiah 35:8–10 speaks of “a highway” called “the Way of Holiness” leading to the city of Zion. Holiness is often referred to in the Bible as a straight path (Hebrews 12:13; Psalm 5:8; Proverbs 3:6; Jeremiah 31:9; Isaiah 26:7).
John was God’s messenger chosen to proclaim the coming of Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah, who is King of kings and Lord of lords. John preached a game-changing baptism of repentance that leads to a life of holiness found only in surrendering to Jesus Christ (John 14:6; 2 Timothy 1:9). As Christians, we prepare the way for the Lord to enter our hearts by repenting of our sins so that Christ can come in and make straight paths and holy temples of our lives (Deuteronomy 26:18–19; Ephesians 1:4; 2:19–22; 1 Peter 1:15–16; 1 Corinthians 3:16–17; 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1).
John the Baptist condemned the Pharisees and Sadducees as a “brood of vipers” in Matthew 3:7. A “brood of vipers” is a “family of snakes.” Because vipers are venomous, John was essentially calling the religious leaders “deadly sons of serpents.” It’s quite a bold denunciation—and one Jesus repeated to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious leaders in Israel during the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. The Pharisees were the Law-keepers and promoters of tradition, and the Sadducees comprised the wealthier ruling class. Over the centuries, these well-meaning groups had become corrupt, legalistic, and hypocritical and would eventually be responsible for crucifying the Son of God. They earned their label “brood of vipers,” a sobriquet with deeper meaning than is obvious at first glance.
The viper was seen to be an evil creature. Its venom was deadly, and it was also devious—the viper that bit Paul was hiding in the firewood (Acts 28:3). The Hebrew Scriptures, which the Pharisees knew well, associate the serpent with Satan in Genesis 3. For John to call the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” implies that they bore satanic qualities. This idea is clearly stated by Jesus in John 8:44, where He says the unbelieving Jews “belong to [their] father, the devil.” When John and Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” they were pointing out that these men were deceitful, dangerous, and wicked—deceitful in that they were hypocrites (Matthew 23:15); dangerous in that they were blind leaders of the blind (Matthew 15:14); and wicked in that their hearts were full of murder (John 8:37).
Another fascinating detail is found in Jesus’ use of the epithet “brood of vipers” to describe the Pharisees. In Matthew 23:33, He says, “You brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” Farmers, then as now, often burned the stubble of their fields to get the land ready for the next planting season. As the fires neared the vipers’ dens, the snakes would slither away from the flames, but they often did not escape being consumed. Snakes fleeing the fire was a common sight, and Jesus’ words to the Pharisees would likely have called it to their minds. How could they think they would escape the fire of God’s judgment by relying on their own works, which were not at all honest or good? John’s and Jesus’ calling them a brood of vipers was meant to make them aware of their own wickedness and call them to repent.
The Essenes were a Jewish mystical sect somewhat resembling the Pharisees. They lived lives of ritual purity and separation. They originated about 100 B.C., and disappeared from history after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Essenes are not directly mentioned in Scripture, although some believe they may be referred to in Matthew 19:11, 12 and in Colossians 2:8, 18, and 23. Interest in the Essenes was renewed with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were likely recorded and stored by the Essenes.
It has been popular among some scholars to claim that John the Baptist was an Essene. There are some similarities between John and the Essenes: 1. John was in the desert (Luke 1:80). The Essenes were in the desert. 2. Both John and the Essenes used Isaiah 40:3 to describe themselves as the voice in the wilderness. 3. The baptism (or washing) practiced by John and the Essenes required a change of heart. At the same time, there are significant differences between John the Baptist and the Essenes: 1. The Essenes hid themselves away from society in the wilderness. John was a very public figure. 2. John had a much stricter diet (Luke 7:33) than did the Essenes. 3. John preached Jesus as the Messiah. The Essenes did not recognize Jesus as Messiah, but they thought that the Teacher of Righteousness would himself be an Essene. 4. There was a strong organization among the Essenes that was missing among John the Baptist’s disciples. So, was John the Baptist an Essene? While it is possible, it cannot be explicitly proven either biblically or historically.
For several reasons, it is significant that John the Baptist was preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, ESV).
Malachi 3:1 is a prophecy that a messenger would come who would prepare the way for Israel’s Messiah. When the Messiah came, that would signal the arrival of the King, with the Day of the Lord to follow and, when that was complete, the beginning of the Messianic Kingdom. John was that messenger, and his mission was to prepare the people to receive their Messiah. John’s call for the people to repent indicated that they needed to change their minds. From Jesus’ own preaching of that same message (e.g., Matthew 4:17), we find that the people thought they were righteous and would have access to the kingdom of God because of their relationship to Abraham and Moses and because of their outward obedience to the laws God had given Israel through Moses. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5—7), Jesus makes it clear that the people needed to change their minds about how a person becomes part of His kingdom. Their self-perceived righteousness was not enough—their heritage and works were not what God required. Instead, God required that the people have a true, internal righteousness that they didn’t yet possess. Not only did they need a king, but they needed a savior; unfortunately, many of them did not realize that need.
In order to make the need clear, John and Jesus proclaimed that the people needed to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” or “has come near” (CSB). God has an eternal kingdom that currently resides in heaven. But passages like 2 Samuel 7 and Revelation 19—20 prophesy that God’s kingdom will one day come to earth in a physical form. Because this will be a heavenly kingdom changing location to earth, John and Jesus (as recorded in Matthew) usually refer to it as “the kingdom of heaven” (or, literally, “the kingdom of the heavens”).
The kingdom was “at hand” or “near” in Jesus’ day because the King had come. But the people weren’t ready yet for the kingdom because they hadn’t yet understood their need for the righteousness that the King would provide. Because of that lack of understanding and the arrival of the King, John’s and Jesus’ message was vitally important—the people truly needed to repent (change their minds about how they could enter the kingdom). While many individuals did change their minds about how they could be righteous, the leaders and the nation as a whole did not (Matthew 12—13), and they rejected Jesus as their King. As a result, Jesus delayed the kingdom and died to pay for the forgiveness of sins so that those who believe in Jesus can be part of His kingdom forever.
In Revelation 19—20 Jesus returns to earth as the King, and He sits on a throne ruling over Israel for one thousand years. After that thousand years, He fulfills His role as Judge, and after judgment is fulfilled, His kingdom continues in a new earth for eternity. Because of what the Bible tells us about the future, we know that we also need to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We need to change our minds about how we become righteous and rely on God’s grace and Jesus’ saving work on the cross, not on our own works and efforts. For those who have believed in Him, we have already been transferred to His kingdom (Colossians 1:13), but because His kingdom isn’t here yet—because the King isn’t here yet—we need to set our mind on the things above where He is, rather than on the temporary things of earth (Colossians 3:1–4).