Radically changing my mind and how I think/act (aka repent) is called for by John. Jesus will call for it as well. it is the start of the disciple’s life. I must constantly remind myself to stop thinking the way I was raised and reject the thinking of this world. The Jesus Manifesto (Matthew 5-7) requires it. It is essential.
Sometimes we go through a draught. It had been 400 years since Israel had heard from a prophet. And then John arrives on the scene. Oh my goodness, the people were thirsty for the word of God and they came to him in droves.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!” For he is the one spoken of through the prophet Isaiah, who said:
A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight! | Matthew 3:1-3 (CSB)
John is called “the baptizer”. Having started my walk with Jesus in the Baptist Church, that always makes me smile. It is probably used to distinguish him from others named John (for example, the apostle John). The initial emphasis falls on his teaching. Matthew uses the present tense in “John the baptizer arrives” and “this [John] is the one spoken about” to stress that John’s teaching starts the proclamation of the good news concerning “the reign of heaven,” a proclamation that will continue to the end.
All kinds of people came to hear John preach and to watch the great baptismal services he conducted. Many publicans and sinners came in sincere humility, but the religious elites refused to submit. They thought that they were good enough to please God; yet John called them a “generation of vipers.” Jesus used the same language when He dealt with this self-righteous crowd.
John’s message was one of judgment. Israel had sinned and needed to change their mind (aka repent), and the religious elites ought to lead the way. The ax was lying at the root of the tree; and if the tree (Israel) did not bear good fruit, it would be cut down. If the nation repented, the way would be prepared for the coming of the Messiah Jesus, the King of God’s country.
Matthew made Joseph the model for Jesus’ disciples in the practice of righteousness, he makes John the model of disciples in how to teach — they too are to proclaim that “the reign of heaven has drawn near” — and even the model of Jesus himself.
John “arrives” just as Jesus “arrives” later on; and what John teaches furthers the parallel with Jesus, because Jesus teaches the very same message: “Change your mind (Repent), for the reign of heaven has drawn near.” God has a country. Jesus is the King and in charge. I must obey the King.
The word for “reign” can also mean “kingdom,” the sphere in which reigning takes place. But a kingdom hardly draws near, whereas the activity of reigning can be on the verge of happening, so that “reign” is a better translation here.
“Has drawn near” means nearness as a result of arrival; and the nearness is spatial in addition to temporal because God is about to reign in the person, presence, and activity of Jesus
“Of heaven” substitutes for “of God” and connotes the majesty and universality of God’s reign because as heaven overarches the entire earth. “Of heaven” allows for Jesus as well as God the Father to reign.
John’s “preaching in the wilderness” matches “crying out in the wilderness” in the quotation of Isaiah 40:3.
“Of Judea” shows that he’s preparing the Davidic territory for the Davidic Messiah. The passage in Isaiah predicts the return of Jewish exiles from Babylonia. Here the passage applies to the beginnings of a greater deliverance, but with emphasis on the straightness of the paths that constitute the way of the Lord, that is, the way of righteousness, on which he’ll save his people from their sins.
It is important to note that “the Master” is God in Isaiah, then, here “the Master” is Jesus, who is about to arrive on the scene. At the end of the quotation “his” replaces Isaiah’s reference to God, because that reference could cause Matthew’s audience to think mistakenly of God in contrast to Jesus.
“For the reign of heaven has drawn near” makes its nearness the reason for John’s audience to repent. It is urgent. It is not to be put off. I must be urgent in my messaging about Jesus. Eternity depends on it for so many.
“For this is the one spoken about” makes John’s identification with the one crying out in the wilderness a reason for Matthew’s audience to maintain their belief that the events beginning with John’s preaching corresponded to ancient prophecy.
“Through Isaiah” implies God as the source of the prophecy, and Isaiah as his mouthpiece. Making straight paths defines preparing the way of the Lord. Together they symbolize repenting. The dignity of Jesus as Lord calls for a road and paths that are straight and easily traveled, not like the twisting roads and paths in hilly, mountainous Israel.
Here is the literal translation from Gundry:
And in those days [the time of residence in Nazareth (2:23)] John the baptizer arrives [on the scene], preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the reign of heaven has drawn near.” For this [John] is the one spoken about through Isaiah the prophet, saying, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Master. Make his paths straight [Isaiah 40:3].
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, pp. 16–17). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
Christian Standard Bible. (2017). (Mt 3:1–3). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Gundry, R. H. (2010). Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (pp. 9–11). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.