There aren’t that many things that actually show up in each of the four Gospels. Most of what’s in Mark makes it into Matthew, some of it finds its way into Luke. There’s a smaller amount of material that appears in just Matthew and Luke. And almost nothing in any of these three finds its way into John. One of the notable exceptions is the curious record of a riverside preacher – John. For some reason, each of these Gospel writers make it clear that one cannot properly understand Jesus apart from John the Baptist. Even Jesus’ birth only manages to make its way into two of the Gospels. So what is it about this revival preacher that’s so important?
In many of the churches I grew up in and have been a part of in my adult years, John has been a bit of a cult-hero in certain circles. And while he is indeed an admirable character, those most closely identifying with him are usually men, typically younger or middle-aged, who admire the fact that John ‘speaks his mind,’ and ‘calls authority to the carpet’ (be it religious or even Rome’s puppet king – I’ll stop there with the characterization lest I cross the line). A ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher if ever there was – at least in part. It’s not my intent to necessarily debunk any John the Baptist myths or misconceptions, but to consider why his inclusion is so central to the introductions of all four Gospels. We’ll only be considering John’s inclusion in Matthew, and while the other three may highlight a few different aspects, the overall thrust of will be essentially consistent with the others.Matthew introduces John in ch 3, briefly mentions his imprisonment in ch 4, describes his disillusionment in ch 11 and his death in ch 14. Quite a large footprint for a ‘side character’ in a relatively short writing. We’ll discuss the references in chapters 11 & 14 in more detail at a later date. But in Matthew’s introduction, John is connected with the famous reference to Isaiah 40:3 – the beginning of what is called Isaiah’s Second Exodus. The section runs through Is 55 and the exiles are presented a message of hope and a picture of both a new deliverance (eschatological – end of the age, beginning of God’s Kingdom stuff) and reconfigured (NOT replaced) Israel that includes the nations (but not necessarily everyone physically descending from Abraham, Isaac & Jacob). This is an essential connection to make in order to properly see what John – and Jesus himself – is truly all about (and helps clear up a lot of misconception about the nature of the relationship between Israel and the church). Here the prophet speaks of a herald declaring a need to prepare the nation (repentance) and the ‘construction’ of a clear, unencumbered path in the wilderness (ie, in the midst of the exile) on which God Himself will arrive (I suppose an agent of God could be in view, but the immediate imagery is that of the arrival of Yahweh Himself upon the scene). Due to the direct citation, many of these connections are picked up easily enough by most studying this matter. However, this is not the end (in my view) of the intended connections. There is another OT reference that picks up on much of the imagery/allusions Matthew connects with John AND picks up on the Is 40:3 reference which I believe helps fill out the picture a little more – for that we go to the end of the OT and refer to Malachi 3 & 4. The fact that Malachi 3:1 directly borrows the imagery of Is 40:3 seals the connection in my book – and the fact that rest of the imagery of this portion of Malachi is all over the balance of Matthew 3 and the Gospel writer’s later references to John – especially ch 14 – further confirms it.
So, what does Malachi add to the picture? Well, Malachi begins with a rebuke of the priestly class – their example, their teaching, their sacrifice (one might here see a parallel with the Sadducees and Pharisees). The prophet continues to by condemning the leaders of the nation (and men in general) for the violence they’ve inflicted on their wives through what we might describe as the widespread escalation of no-fault divorce. At this point (ch 3) the prophet declares that a messenger will come to clear the way before the coming of the Lord (sounds a little like Is 40:3). There will be a purifying aspect to this arrival AND an element of judgement (more than mere refining – back to this later) for things like adultery (see Herod’s illicit marriage referenced in Matt 14) and a variety of ‘social justice’ issues that make God come across like a Democrat (ooh, did I just go there – but also the same issues of mercy Jesus himself later rebukes the Pharisees for failing to uphold). Lets skip over Mal 3:6-12 for today, too much to unpack. The balance of ch 3 picks up on the complaint of the wicked/proud of the nation (Israel) and contrasts their complaint with the humble response, and acceptance of, those of the land who honored their God (accepted His messenger and word as demonstrated by the fruit of repentance – see John’s charge to the religious leaders). These are preserved as a remnant, which when tied in with the Isaiah/2nd Exodus imagery, means they are part of the reconstituted and expanded Israel – together with the nations. The picture continues with the image of an unquenchable furnace, chaff burning, devouring even the root (compare with the images of Matt 3:10-12) and life, healing, and joy for the remnant spared.
Okay… that’s a lot to digest. Who is John? He’s the voice in Isaiah’s wilderness. He’s the messenger, the Elijah of Malachi. He’s the one tabbed to call both the people and the leaders of Israel to humility and repentance – in preparation for the coming of…. not simply Messiah, but Yahweh Himself (that’s what Matthew’s saying about Jesus in these references – a pretty high view, if I do say). His arrival will mark the true end to Israel’s ongoing exile. Those in Israel who hear the cry, embrace His purifying work, and respond in humility to their God will enter with joy into the Kingdom of Heaven, now at hand. By the very hand of Yahweh, they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit (the life of God – and yes, I’m a Pentecostal who speaks in tongues, but don’t read that into Matthew – that’s not what the text is getting at here – but don’t fear, perhaps Luke/Peter are making additional connections in Acts, we’ll see). For those of Israel (be they priest, scribe, Pharisee or even royalty/aristocrat) who fail to hear and properly respond at this point, only utter and complete judgement awaits. They will, by the same hand of Yahweh experience the aforementioned baptism as unquenchable fire – judgement, final, complete, and irreversible. Now, whether this is a separate baptism from the previously mentioned one or the same with dual outcomes is irrelevant on every level. The point is, no matter what some of my more dynamic, outspoken Pentecostal/charismatic brothers may say (and I’ve heard many impassioned sermons claiming what I’m about to say), this has NOTHING to do with an endowment of power, boldness, passion, purification or any other such thing. This is a picture of judgment, pure and simple – an image which is ALWAYS present along side of blessing WHENEVER the prophets depict the coming of the Lord, and/or some variation on the Kingdom of Heaven/God. Finally, bear in mind that while some of these arguments with regard to Israel are more than a little difficult for us to accept with our present day sensitivities, Matthew’s arguments are not part of OUR world, they were part of an ongoing debate among Jews, of what it means to be Israel, God’s people. This is not a present day statement of comparative religion or an indictment against a nationality.
– Pastor Jim Kushner