This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'”
Matthew 3:3 (NRSV)
Did you miss the Old Testament quotes? Well, here you go.
This one comes to us by way of Isaiah 40:3. The text is changed slightly in Matthew’s use, and it might influence the punctuation.
In the original reference, preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness is paralleled against “make straight in the desert a highway before our God.” In other words, the voice is crying out to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness – the voice is not in the wilderness. “In the wilderness” is where the way of the Lord is prepared. “In the desert” is where His highway is prepared.
Matthew drops the bit about the desert, and thus the verse gets punctuated like we see, here, where the voice is crying in the wilderness, because the parallelism is gone. How important this may be for interpretation is debatable, but we can understand it in light of Matthew likes to put some kind of literal hook in his Old Testament references. Here, John the Baptist is in the wilderness. To link him more closely with the reference, Matthew arranges the text to look more like what you see above. John the Baptist is crying out in the wilderness, so we can hook into Isaiah’s passage if we look at it from the standpoint of Isaiah’s “voice” crying out in the wilderness.
Regardless, clearly the intent is to link John’s activity with what Isaiah is describing, and what he is describing is an event where Israel has paid for her sins by serving her time in Babylon, so it is time to bring the exile to an end.
If you read Isaiah 40-43, you’ll see some colorful imagery. My favorite is possibly 41:14. But all of it is directed to the fact that the Lord is coming to release Israel from her exile, and now is the time for her to be encouraged and lift up her head.
By the time we get to Isaiah 42, Israel is portrayed as God’s servant whose job will be to bring light to the nations.
So, in sum, the Isaiah passages tell us of a time of preparation in the wilderness to pave the way for the Lord’s deliverance of Israel. By doing this, he re-forms Israel into a faithful servant whose job will be to roll healing and wisdom out to the nations.
In Mark’s Gospel, Malachi gets thrown in here, and the combined cast seems to be that John is paving the way for Jesus as faithful Israel. In Matthew’s Gospel, we don’t get that facet. Matthew, here, is primarily focused on the end of exile and God’s imminent deliverance, which matches up with the other references we’ve seen in Matthew so far.
But perhaps the bit in Isaiah 42 gives us a little insight into how this deliverance will be accomplished. The salvation of Israel involves reforming her into a faithful servant – a servant whom Jesus already is and that he will make his people into. The end of Israel’s first century exile will not come from an invading army like the end of the Babylonian exile – it will come from making her a new nation and setting her to the task of blessing and illuminating the nations.
And this is what Jesus provides. Rome isn’t conquered by the sword of another empire; they are conquered by the faithful testimony of God’s people, up to and including martyrdom. This is the picture of the people of God overthrowing the Beast we see in Revelation 12:10. John the Baptist knows the deliverance is imminent, but this particular conquest may have some surprising features.
- What weapons and tactics are available to Christians who struggle against a corrupt world system? How do these differ from the weapons and tactics the world’s political powers use?
- If you belong to Christ, you haven’t just been delivered from something, but also to be something. What does that mission look like for the church, today?