Matt 3:3-6 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight.'" Now John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. (NKJV)
My first thought of John the Baptist is that he must have been a very unusual sight even in 30 AD. I imagine a man with scraggly beard and unkempt hair squatting by a fire in the cold of the desert night. He scratches frequently because of the course camelhair robe cinched at his waist by a wide leather belt with a big buckle. His sunken eyes and scrawny arms reveal a poor diet of bugs and honey. Why in the world would someone go out into the desert to listen to someone like that? If you can’t image that, then think about the cartoons of a weirdo carrying a sign that reads, “The End Is Near.” How much do I miss in Scripture because I read in my own perspective?
After thinking about this for some time, I think that I have read more into the Scripture than is there. I’ve made conclusions that are not justified. According to Luke 1:15, he was not to drink any alcoholic beverages. I assumed that meant that he was a Nazirite, however the Nazirite restriction of never cutting his hair was ever mentioned. Even if he didn’t cut his hair, it is my own personal bias that would lead me to think it would be unkempt. Finally, why do I think that a camelhair coat would be itchy and rough looking? I once had a camelhair jacket and it was very smooth. In fact, camelhair fabric is very soft, lightweight, and warm.
I could be just as wrong about how healthy his diet was. John the Baptist could have been a very distinguished and well-dressed man. Living in the desert didn’t mean he camped out every night or wandered without shelter. It doesn’t mean that his life there was isolated either. There is nothing in the Word that should make me think that a strange or weird man. The image that he was weird is most likely fueled by today’s bias against people of faith who aren’t afraid to speak the truth.
As I consider this, I wonder how many times I’ve read a passage of scripture and viewed it out of my own experience instead of the reality of the time it was written. It certainly shows me that I must be very careful when I draw conclusions about how the Bible should affect my life. I can easily read into a passage something very different from what God originally intended and what He intends for every person since then to understand and follow.
This also brings up the fact that different forms of writing require different ways of understanding the meaning. The quote about one calling in the wilderness is taken from Isaiah 40:3. When I copied the quote in Matthew, I removed the formatting. Most versions of the Bible formats poetic passages differently so that it can be recognized. Matthew 3:3 or Isaiah 40:4 is show as poetic. Matthew most likely quoted this from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament written two to three hundred years earlier. Therefore, it varies somewhat from the translations we now use. Since it is poetic, I can rightly assume that preparing a way for the Lord and making His path straight is not referring to building a physical road in the desert and filling in every valley and removing hills and mountains as Isaiah 40:4 says.
Instead, Matthew is pointing out that John’s ministry is exactly what the angel predicted in Luke 1:16-17 "And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (NASB) John’s ministry was turn hearts back to God. This takes place as family relationships are restored and the attitudes people are turned back to righteousness. In doing this, he was able to get many people ready for Jesus to appear and accept Him.
In application to myself, I can see that I need to make sure my family relationships are loving. I can do this by following many Scriptural commands such as Eph 6:4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (NIV) I need to make sure I’m not disobedient in my attitudes about righteous living. Rom 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (RSV) Many passages describe unrighteous behavior and the behavior that should replace it.
I can also see that if I want to prepare someone to receive Jesus as his Lord and Savior, then I should also instruct him in these two areas. Especially important is explaining the attitude of the disobedient, helping him know that he is a sinner. Without this understanding, he will not see the need to repent. It is also one of the toughest things to do because it means I may be accused of being intolerant, arrogant, and other things. Later we’ll see that John was beheaded for pointing out sinful behavior.
Why would so many people go out to the desert to listen to John? I think it is because Luke 1:15 says that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. The fruit of the Holy Spirit must have been evident in his life. Gal 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (NIV) When God calls a person to a ministry such as his and his life is characterized by these virtues then it would make sense that he would attract people. If my life is filled with the Holy Spirit, then it makes the task of instructing others easier, whether it is a large crowd or just one.
If I’m honestly looking for God, I will listen to someone like John. Heb 11:6 And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (RSV) One of the reasons that few people are looking for God today is that they have been taught that there is no God. Teaching the religion of evolution in our schools has replaced God with nature. It has reduced man to an animal that is has no more right to the earth than any other animal. I am no longer a being created with a special purpose – to worship God. If my faith is in nature, I would not seek God. A man like John would indeed sound like a crackpot – especially if he says that some of my evolutionary instincts are sin.
God may trip me (or knock me off my horse as he did to Paul) so that I’m suddenly aware of Him. Eccl 3:11 Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end. (NLT) Whether God trips me or simply awakens this yearning in my heart for eternity, a man like John will fill in the blanks so that I can begin to understand the beginning of God’s work. Like the multitude that went to John, I will confess my sin as I realize that the His work was to send Jesus to pay for my sins. Turning to Jesus, I to will be baptized as a public declaration of my repentance and a changed life.