Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as Israel’s Messiah who comes to redeem and restore the people of God – a people that would include the nations. Indeed, the first chapter announces him as the one who ‘will save his people from their sins’ (1.21). That is, the mission of Jesus is the (re)creation of the people of God.
John the Baptist is the forerunner, the one who ‘prepares the way’ for Jesus (3.3). As such, we should expect the message of John to prepare people to hear and respond to the message of Jesus. Therefore, John’s preaching should point forward to the message and mission of the Messiah. In other words, John’s ministry anticipates Jesus’s ministry both in content and focus.
Though sometimes overlooked, John’s message was really about the people of God. Here I focus on Matthew 3.1-12. Notice a few important points:
First, John came preaching the Kingdom, which is inherently a corporate message. In Matthew, John preaches virtually the same message that we hear from the lips of Jesus in Mark 1.15: ‘Repent for the kingdom is near.’ Of course, the kingdom of God is an important theme in the Gospels, but it is interesting that John prepares the way by announcing the kingdom. He is getting people ready for the arrival of the King. This is a message concerning the people of the kingdom – those who would repent and follow the King.
Second, John is identified as the one Isaiah said would prepare the way of the Lord. That the quotation from Isaiah was about Yahweh’s return raises questions about the identity of Jesus. The voice in Isaiah prepares the way for Yahweh, yet Matthew says that John (who is that voice) prepares the way for Jesus. This is part of the subtle divine Christology of the Synoptic Gospels.
In any case, the context of the quotation (Isaiah 40) is a message of comfort for God’s people. Their God and King is returning, which is an occasion for rejoicing because he is coming to restore his people. Therefore, John prepares the way for the Messiah to come as the King who restores God’s people.
Third, Matthew emphasizes the Jews coming out to John. A minor point, but it is interesting that Matthew is clear that ‘Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him [John].’ He could have said that ‘many people’ or ‘crowds’ were going out. Instead, Matthew seems intent on showing that many Jews were going out to John – note the repetition of ‘all.’
Fourth, John confronts the Pharisees and Sadducees concerning the true people of God. John calls the Pharisees and Sadducees ‘the offspring of snakes’ and says that they are not the children of Abraham. Perhaps these words echo those of Genesis 3.15, where there would be enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The seed of the woman is also identified as the seed of Abraham in the narrative of Genesis. In any case, clearly the distinction is between those falsely claiming to be the people of God and the true people of God.
Fifth, John points forward to Jesus in new covenant terms. Finally, John says that the Messiah will baptize people ‘with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ These are likely new covenant terms. When God makes a new covenant, he will put his Spirit within his people (Ezekiel 36). Fire is often associated with covenant making in the OT (Abraham in Genesis 15 and Sinai in Exodus 19). Therefore, the Messiah will make a new covenant with his people.
In short, John prepares the way by setting the stage for the recreation of the people of God in the Messiah.