Matthew writes in a manner that packs a ton of information and references in just a few sentences. Remember, he’s writing to people who would have probably either met, or would have heard from second hand sources about this John the baptist fellow. First, we find that this man is in the wilderness of Judea preaching. This is important for two reasons.
We can notice verse 3, that Matthew quotes Isaiah 40. What do you find when you go back to Isaiah 40? This is the first chapter after speaking about Hezekiah being threatened by Assyria, becoming sick, getting well, and then entertaining Babylon. Isaiah prophesied to Hezekiah in chapter 39 that during the time of his children the Babylonians would come into Judah and ransack the land, the palace, and the Temple. Because this man showed them everything, they will come and devastate in order to take everything. Isaiah 40 starts by prophesying, “Comfort, yes, comfort my people…”
When we read the context of Isaiah 40, we find another one of those Matthew moments when he is saying that something is being fulfilled, but then the context of Isaiah 40 doesn’t grant this. We continue through Isaiah 40 to find that God redeems Israel, and that God comes and rules over Israel Himself. We find that the glory of God is revealed, and the nations are counted as nothing.
This is not a passage about Jesus’ first coming. This is a passage about the second coming. Yet, Matthew is saying that John the Baptist is the one preparing the way…
How can we explain this?
I would like to use timelines, charts, and other drawings to employ, but for this kind of revelation, it must be revealed by the Holy Spirit. It almost seems diminished to attempt another way of expressing it.
Time in the prophetic and apostolic mind is not linear. It cycles, and each cycle results in a deeper progression of God’s plan of cosmic redemption. So, for example, you have from the beginning the Kingdom established. When Adam and Eve took of the forbidden fruit, they were exiled from Eden, which we can liken unto that Kingdom. However, God didn’t cast them away without hope. There are progressions throughout history of how it is that God is bringing it all back together. You have two seeds spoken of in Genesis 3:15. Cain builds a city, but there is no mention of such a thing with the sons of Seth. It is with Seth’s birth that men started to call upon the name of the LORD. With Noah and the flood, we begin a new cycle, with an ‘everlasting covenant’. It is Shem who is most highly blessed at the end of Genesis 9, and Canaan/Ham that is least. Yet, when we read Genesis 10, it is the descendants of Japheth that brought about the second city mentioned in the Bible: Babel.
From Babel comes Babylon. Notice the peoples associated with this in Genesis 10:10-12. We have Assyria also mentioned, which is why in Isaiah the Assyrian often sounds like the Antichrist. As we progress in the narrative, we find Abraham being chosen. From Abraham we find Isaac is chosen. It continues to narrow down who this “seed of the woman” is, until you have twelve chosen – the twelve sons of Jacob. Israel is the firstborn son of God (Exodus 4:22), and is the seed of the woman. Egypt in Exodus represents the kingdom of darkness in flesh. Israel represents the Kingdom of God. God delivers Israel, thus establishing His Kingdom upon the earth with the conquest of Canaan.
There is the same story repeating over and over again. Enoch (the city) is destroyed through the flood, when God delivers a people for Himself (Noah and his sons). Babel is destroyed, and God chooses a people for Himself (Abraham and descendants). Egypt collapses, and God chooses a people for Himself (Israel). Canaan is conquered, and God establishes Israel and the Land as His physical Kingdom on this earth. Jerusalem is conquered, and God chooses David to rule from there. Here it is another step in the progression. Each time the Kingdom of God is revealed more deeply and exactly.
It is no longer a foreshadowing that is spoken of here. Now we have Christ Jesus, the physical incarnate God. With John the baptist, he is preparing the way for the Kingdom of God, because the actual, physical, real, tangible Kingdom is to be established through Jesus. Now, what many commentators miss is that this is not the final progression. There still will come a deeper expression of the Kingdom with the return of Jesus, and therefore another moment when this verse in Isaiah is applicable. The establishment of the Kingdom of God is progressing in deeper and deeper expressions, until you finally come to the end of the age, with the Millennial Kingdom, and God’s glory is beheld unto all the earth, the nations themselves are coming up to Jerusalem to behold that glory, and Jesus rules – God in the flesh – over all peoples.
Many times the New Testament writers show how with Jesus’ first coming there is a fulfillment of these Old Testament prophecies. But that doesn’t mean that those prophecies are now done away with and thrown to the side. There is a pattern in the Bible, which the prophecies are reiterating and expecting to continue. These patterns are not just there for us to call “dispensations”, but are instead cycles to help express the ultimate climax. There shall be an ultimate climax where history comes to a pinnacle. It won’t always be that we’ll find cycle after cycle, world without end. Time will come to a close, and there is “an age to come”. Matthew is pointing out that with Jesus’ first coming, we do have the actual Kingdom of God being manifest, a deeper expression than before, and yet at the same time it is the exact same expression as before.
Which brings me to another point.
There is this idea that what we have in the ‘new covenant’ (New Testament) is better than what they had in the ‘old covenant’ (Old Testament), and therefore the old is obsolete. What is not understood is that the old is an expression of the eternal, one progression further than where Abraham was, but not to the point where God Himself ruled over Israel and all nations. Here is why that is important: The same Spirit that has been poured out upon us is the same Spirit that the prophets had. What you see expressed throughout the Old Testament in the saints is the exact same thing that you and I have. Saul was converted after leaving Samuel to go back home, and it says that he “became another person”. That is the exact same conversion that Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 5:17. The prophets did say that the Spirit came upon them, but it also says that the Spirit was in them (Daniel 4:8, Genesis 41:38, Numbers 27:18, etc).
The second reason that the wilderness is important in verse 1 is for the sake of verse 4. To many Christians who are not familiar with their Old Testament, this seems like just an abnormal description of John the Baptist. However, when you cross reference 2 Kings 1:8, you find that this was the exact dress of Elijah. Why is that important? Malachi 3:1 says that before the Messiah comes, God shall send Elijah as the forerunner. Once again, this is the pattern being revealed, and Matthew is showing John the baptist to be Elijah. We don’t find Malachi 3:1 quoted here (unlike in Mark 1:2-3), but we do find Jesus insert this later in Matthew 11:10.
In Matthew’s Gospel, John’s message was, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Matthew stresses the issue of repentance to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, where Mark stresses repentance for the remission of sins. Both Mark and Luke speak of that remission, but in Matthew’s Gospel, such words are strangely absent. Later in the passage, Matthew explains to us what “entering the Kingdom” is, by revealing that all Jerusalem (go back again to Matt 2:3), all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to John, confessing their sins. We then progress from that into verse 7, to speak on the unrepentant Pharisees, and verse 10 signifying the uprooting (casting off – Matt 2:6, Micah 5:2-3) of the of those without repentance.
This “all the region around the Jordan” practically quotes the same phrase from Genesis 13:10-11. This is the region that Sodom and Gomorrah was in. This only shows one more time the pattern of redemption, not only for individuals, nor even for nations, but for the land itself. The place that was inhabited by wickedness, and was left desolate through judgment, is the very place God chooses, and the very place of whose inhabitants come out in repentance before God through confession and the baptism of John the baptist. All the strings tie together somehow – even the strings we weren’t looking for.