Between the last words of Matthew chapter two and the first words of chapter three some thirty years have passed. Enter John the Baptist. He was called the Baptist because baptizing people was central to his message, not because he had slicked his hair back with a pound of gel, and had sworn off drinking, dancing and poker playing.
So who is John?
Matthew seems to assume that his readers would already be familiar with the man. As such, he simply introduces John onto the scene by saying in those days John the Baptist came. But who was this guy? Where did he come from? Luke, in the first chapter of his gospel, uses a big but to introduce him. We’re told that John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were upright in the sight of the Lord and that they earnestly obeyed the Lord’s commands. But, they had no children because Elizabeth was barren and they were both well along in years. With that but Luke suggests that God’s hand was involved in finally blessing this couple with a son. An angel told his parents that God had prepared a very special role for their son: to serve as the messenger God had spoken of long ago in His story, one who would come in the spirit and power of Elijah and prepare the way.
Elijah? Yes. Long ago, in the Old Testament, a man named Elijah served God as a prophet. His message was bold and confrontational. God had promised that before Israel’s Deliverer would arrive on the scene, another would come, like Elijah, to prepare the way. What does it mean to prepare the way? It means to remove obstacles. The concept of a forerunner was well known in the ancient Near East, as kings and dignitaries routinely sent envoys ahead to prepare for their arrival—much like our Secret Service sends an advance team ahead of the President of the United States’ personal appearances. In one of those old texts, the third chapter of the book of Malachi, this expectation was set forth: I will send my messenger who will prepare the way … Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come … But who can endure the day of his coming? Note that big but. As we will see, John’s role was to set things—especially people’s hearts—in order. If you get the feeling that the message of John the Baptizer has a hint of vinegar in it, that’s because it does.
Now, John’s ministry was quite a spectacle. John himself was a sight. He wore camel hair clothing and a leather belt—aside from being a nightmare for PETA, he was totally out of step with the fashion of his day. If his outfit wasn’t enough, the man actually ate locusts—and he wasn’t a contestant on Fear Factor. Rather, John’s dress and diet suggested that he was a common man, living a very modest lifestyle. That stood in stark contrast with the religious leaders of his day who were all about fancy garments and appearances. In this, John reminded people of Elijah of old.
Again, remember who Matthew had in mind as he wrote this gospel. For his Jewish audience, ties between Jesus’ arrival and their ancient story—here, one like Elijah as a forerunner—all lent more to identifying Jesus as the promised Deliverer.