Make Straight the Way

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, 

‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His path straight.’’

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Saducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but He comes after me is mightier than I whose sandal I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.’”

As Matthew transitions away from Jesus’ birth, he takes the focus off of Jesus for a brief moment. He introduces us to John the Baptist. John the Baptist is probably one of the most well known characters in the Gospels, next to Jesus of course. Because he is so familiar to many people, I want to take some time to really slow down and walk through these verses.

I want to start with a summary of how Matthew describes John the Baptist. Then, we’ll do a pretty deep dive into this story. I’ll go section by section and point out a few things as we go. As always, I encourage you to take your own notes as you study. Don’t just rely on my notes, but investigate this story for yourself. You can use what I write to guide you. But my goal is for you to be able to study the Bible on your own as much as possible. 

Summary

According to Matthew, John came preaching in the wilderness of Judea. Matthew points out that John’s preaching was a fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah. As John preached, people came to be baptized by him, including the Pharisees and Sadducees. John rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a brood of vipers. He told them that someone greater would come after him. That person would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 

Unpacking

There’s a lot to unpack in these verses. So, like I said before, we’ll go section by section. As we go, keep the whole story of Matthew in mind. Remember what we’ve talked about already. Matthew’s primary audience was Jewish. Based on the genealogy in Matthew 1, he was trying to show his audience two things:

  1. Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah they had been waiting for
  2. What it means for Jesus to be the Christ. What kind of kingdom He was brining in. What kind of king He would be. And ultimately what Jesus’ purpose was as the Christ.

Remembering all of this can help us as we read about John the Baptist.

A Voice Crying

The first detail we have about John is that he came preaching in the wilderness. Matthew summarizes his preaching in one sentence: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Then, Matthew tells us that John is the person who was spoken about in a prophecy from Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His path straight.’”

This prophecy comes from Isaiah 40:3. Before Isaiah said the words quoted in Matthew, he warned king Hezekiah of Judah about the coming exile. Isaiah said that Hezekiah would be spared, but the exile would still come in future generations. After delivering the bad news, Isaiah breaks into chapter 40 with this words:

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God,
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

And cry to her
That her warfare has ended
That her iniquity is pardoned
That she has received from the LORD’s hand
Double for all her sins.

A voice cries:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill made low;
The uneven ground shall become level,
And the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
And all flesh shall see it together
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’”

These words from Isaiah start with comfort in the midst of judgment and suffering, something we’ve seen in previous prophecies. But then, he moves on to what we find in Matthew. A voice cries for a way to be made for the Lord. He cries for people to prepare for God to come. Even nature will bow and make a path for the Lord to come.

And according to Matthew, John the Baptist is that voice.

A Forerunner for the Lord

Now I want to take this a little further. While simply looking at the text we have in front of us is the first step to studying the Bible, it can also be helpful to look at the culture around the Bible and see what the original audience would have seen here. We learned in a previous post that Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience. And this audience would have been familiar with the reference to Isaiah. And there would have been things in Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah that we will likely miss, unless we look a little deeper, because we’re not 1st century Jews. So, to really understand what Matthew is trying to say here we’ll need to do a little research. I encourage you to do a little searching on your own if you have time. Of course, if you don’t have time, I’m more than happy to share what I’ve learned with you.

As I was researching this section of Matthew and the prophecy in Isaiah, I found some interesting notes that I think can help us get an even better understanding of what we’re reading. 

The idea in Isaiah of a person crying for people to make way for the Lord “is taken from the practice of Eastern monarchs, who whenever they entered on a journey…sent harbringers or heralds before hem to prepare a way” (Barnes Notes on the Bible). So basically, whenever a king would travel through a specific region, they would send a group of men ahead of them to clear the way. As they cleared the road, they would announce that a king was passing through. 

This is what Isaiah is alluding to in Isaiah 40. What makes this even more interesting is the context in which he makes this statement. Before he talks about the voice in the wilderness, he gives us the reason why the Lord is coming. He is not coming to destroy. He is not coming for vengeance. No. Instead, the Lord is coming to bring His people out of exile. Yes, He sent them into exile, but here He also promises to come and bring them out. A way needs to be made for Him to come. A path needs to be made straight so that the Lord can set His people free. 

Now let’s look back at Matthew. John is preparing the way for the coming king. He is preparing the people for the Christ. And in a sense, Matthew is also preparing his readers for the coming of Jesus as the Christ. By taking the time to introduce John the Baptist like this, Matthew helps his readers see that Jesus is the king they were waiting for.

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then, Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

With this next paragraph, Matthew gives his readers another important description of John the Baptist. The first sentence of this paragraph was one his original readers would have been very familiar with. It was a small hint at something that would have caught the attention of his Jewish audience. 

He says that John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. He also ate locusts and wild honey.  Now to us, this just seems like a strange and radical lifestyle. But to Matthew’s readers, this sentence would have been very important. 

Why?

To understand why we have to go back to the Old Testament again. First, let’s go back to Malachi 4. In Malachi 4, we see a description of the coming day of the Lord. Toward the very end of Malachi 4, God says, “Behold, I will send Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” So, how does this prophecy connect to John the Baptist? Well, to answer that we need to go back a bit farther in the Old Testament to 2 Kings 1.

Here we see this description of the prophet Elijah: “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.”

Who does that sound like?

John the Baptist. 

So, in Matthew’s description of John the Baptist, Matthew is telling his readers that John is the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy of Elijah. 

What’s the Big Deal with Elijah?

Now, you may be asking, so what? The connection between John and Elijah is cool, but why is that significant? 

In order to answer those questions, we need to learn more about Elijah. And that means we will be spending even more time in the Old Testament (in case you haven’t figured it out by now, knowing the Old Testament is really helpful in understanding the Gospel of Matthew). I encourage you to do some investigating on your own. You can read through 1 Kings 17- 2 Kings 2 to see the whole story of Elijah. But, I know that’s a lot to read. So, I will give you a brief overview. 

Elijah was a prophet in Israel during the reign of King Ahab. Ahab married a woman named Jezebel who turned him away from worshipping God. Ahab worshipped idols and encouraged idolatry among the people of Israel. God sent Elijah to warn Ahab and to call him to repentance. 

And so, John the Baptist came, also calling God’s people to repentance.

God sent Elijah to Israel to warn them to repent before it was too late. God was patient with His people. He wanted them to come back to Him. And He gave them time. But there would be a point where they would push it too far. They would test the patience of God and wrath would come

. And Elijah was sent to warn them. Likewise, John was sent before Jesus to call people to repentance. In Malachi 4, we see that a day would come when God would come to His people. And John the Baptist was telling the people that the day had come. It was time to turn from their sin. It was time to prepare for the coming of the Lord.

The Pharisees and Sadducees

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stone to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

As John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan Pharisees and Sadducees came to him as well. Now, if you’re at least a little familiar with the Gospels and the story of Jesus, you’ll know a little about the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious and social elite of 1st century Judaism. Jesus often criticized them during His ministry. The Pharisees are especially known today for being legalistic and even hypocritical. They often were so concerned with keeping God’s laws that they missed the heart behind them.

But, as I’ve been studying Matthew, I learned a little bit more about the Sadducees and specifically the Pharisees that I think will help us understand where they’re coming from and why John critiques them the way he does.

The Sadducees: The Social Elite

The Sadducees made up the upper class in 1st century Judaism. They were much more liberal than the Pharisees. And most of the time the Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed with each other on a lot of things. When it came to the Scriptures, the Sadducees believed only the first five books of the Bible were authoritative. The Sadducees rejected the “Oral Law” (which we’ll talk about in a minute) that the Pharisees held to. They also didn’t believe in an afterlife or resurrection. Because they valued their social status, they were often willing to conform to Roman culture.

The Pharisees: The Religious Elite

The Pharisees are probably the most well-known sect of 1st century Judaism. And they were a very important sect of Judaism. In fact, they ended up setting the stage for Judaism as we know it today. The Pharisees were the group that had the most conflict with Jesus throughout the Gospels. We see Jesus constantly calling them out for their hypocrisy and legalism.

The Pharisees were different from the Sadducees in many ways. First of all, they did not always enjoy the same social and political status that the Sadducees enjoyed. They were a group made up of many different people, from different social classes. And while the Sadducees placed great emphasis on worship in the temple, the Pharisees worked to help the Jews extend worship into their everyday lives. They encouraged Jews to worship God outside of the temple. This would prove to be helpful when the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.

As a religious sect, the Pharisees were extremely concerned about piety and obedience to God. They were especially concerned with how the Law applied to every aspect of Jewish life. They believed very strongly in the Torah that God gave to Moses. And they also believed in an Oral law. This law, they believed, was given at the same time God gave Moses the Torah. This oral law created guidelines for how Jews were to honor God in their everyday life. The Pharisees were very interested in making sure their fellow Jews understood and obeyed this oral law.

From what I’ve read about the Pharisees, it seems that they started out with good intentions. They saw the consequences God’s people faced for not following the Law in the past. And they wanted to make sure the people were pleasing God. The initial desire of the Pharisees seems to be a good one. They wanted to help people follow God’s Law better. But, over time, they became twisted. The Pharisees became so focused on the tiny details of their Oral Law that they missed important parts o the actual Law. And they missed God’s heart behind it. We see this many times in their confrontations with Jesus. By focusing so much on how the Torah was lived out in every single part of life, the Pharisees placed unnecessary burdens on the people. And because they were not really living out these Laws themselves, they were being hypocritical.

The Brood of Vipers

The Pharisees and Sadducees represented the highest and the best in 1st century Judaism. The Pharisees were the holiest. They scrutinized the Law and made sure every aspect of their lives looked perfect. On the outside, they appeared to be the most righteous. The Sadducees on the other hand, held the highest social status. Because wealth and power were often viewed as stamps of approval from God, it would be easy to see why the Sadducees believed they pleased God.

John told the Pharisees and Sadducees to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. As we see later in the Gospels, the Pharisees didn’t feel like they needed to repent. They didn’t think they were sinners. Likewise, the Sadducees didn’t see the need to repent either. They had wealth and social status. They had God’s stamp of approval. But according to John, both the Pharisees and Sadducees needed to repent as much as anyone else there. Following the Law wasn’t good enough. Being rich wasn’t good enough. Even being children of Abraham wasn’t good enough. They needed to humble themselves and repent of their sins. They needed to recognize they were wrong.

Confessing and Repenting

I think an important point to take away from this story is the importance of confession and repentance. That’s the whole point of John’s baptism. When the people went to him, Matthew specifically says they were confessing their sins to him. They saw their sin and were willing to acknowledge it. And John called the Pharisees and Sadducees to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. As we’ve already discussed, the Pharisees and Sadducees saw no need to repent. They didn’t think they sinned. Repentance didn’t apply to them. God was already pleased.

I think here in Matthew we see an interesting spectrum of sorts. On the one side, we see those who have compromised the Law. Elijah came in the Old Testament to reveal the sin of Ahab and Israel. Elijah called out their idolatry and how they had compromised the Law.  And that’s what John does here. He calls the people to repent. He calls them to confess their sins and turn back to God. But, on the other side, we have the Pharisees and Sadducees who in response the compromises of the past tried as hard as they could to keep the Law. But, unfortunately, they missed the point. And they ended up being just as sinful of everyone else. And so, John’s call to repent was just as much for them as it was for anyone else. They had become self-righteous and bore no real fruit.

So, John hits the full spectrum of sin. He hits those who go after a million different things to try to satisfy themselves. And he hits the ones who focus so much on keeping the Law that they miss God in the process. Both need to confess their sins. Both need to repent.

Prepare for the Coming King

In the last paragraph of this story, Matthew brings it back to Jesus. John says:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Like Elijah, John came for a specific purpose. He came to call people to repent of their sin. He came to prepare the way for the coming king. And by telling the story of John, Matthew shows his readers and us that Jesus is that king. Jesus was the one who was coming after John. Jesus would gather the wheat and leave the chaff. Jesus was the one John the Baptist was preparing the way for. And here again, we see Matthew trying to show his fellow Jews that their Messiah had come. The one they had been waiting for had finally come. And His name was Jesus.

 

Resources Used

https://biblehub.com/nasb/isaiah/40-3.htm

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/pharisees-sadducees-and-essenes

https://www.gotquestions.org/Sadducees.html

https://www.christianity.com/wiki/people/who-were-the-sadducees-in-the-bible-what-were-their-beliefs.html

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