Scripture: 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 paths 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 baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Matthew 3:1-6 ESV
Observation: Having concluded Jesus’ birth story, Matthew jumps to Jesus’ adult ministry, beginning with John the Baptist preparing the way for those who will be receptive to his Gospel. Undoubtedly, John knew Malachi’s prophecy: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (Malachi 4:5). Thus, seeing himself possessing the spirit of Elijah, John mirrors this great prophet’s outward persona by wearing a camel’s hair garment and leather belt (2 Kings 1:8). And four centuries after Malachi pronounces the last recorded prophecy of the Old Testament, John the Baptist breaks the silence of the inter-testimonial period, announcing “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Regarding baptism, in keeping with Jeremiah’s “new covenant” prophecy of a day coming where God will write his law on his people’s hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34), John provokes those who came from throughout Judea (to hear his message of hope) to confess their sins and repent. Once done, they would receive water baptism. While not an unfamiliar sacrament, the religious leaders typically baptized only those who converted to Judaism as a purification ritual (being an unclean Gentile). Meanwhile, circumcision remained the outward sign of the covenantal relationship with Yahweh.
Takeaway: As mentioned in a prior Daily Focus, the etymology of “repentance” has its roots in the nomadic life of the wilderness. The desert regions posed several risks in long-distance travel, the foremost being dehydration. So if one were to wander across such arid terrain with few landmarks and lose their bearings, they would eventually perish. While they could attempt a course correction, retracing their tracks back to where they started would ensure their survival. Then, once adequately prepared, they would restart with all they needed to reach their destination.
Matthew records John’s message of repentance using the Greek word mataneō. Classical Greek refers to repentance as a change of mind (as many pastors tend to emphasize today). But its New Testament use, influenced by the Hebrew verbs nāḥam (“to be sorry for one’s actions”) and šûḇ (“to turn around to new actions”), aligns with its nomadic roots. Repentance, as Paul notes, begins with godly sorrow and leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10). It engages all aspects of our being and requires action: a reset onto a path lit by the light of Christ. Of course, in this age of immediate gratification, the last thing we want to do is waste time retracing our steps from where we veered off course and then restart the journey. But, as the saying goes, better late than never. And this is so true of our Gospel of grace that promises us a place in God’s heavenly kingdom, no matter how many times we have to repent.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for John the Baptist and all who have followed him through the centuries with similar spirits of humble servitude, preparing your way for us. We confess that when we hear your convicting truth, we often are slow to divulge our sins and repent. So would you please help us to exercise patience and cooperate with your Holy Spirit, who leads us to repentance and a fresh restart? And would you grant us grace in understanding it is better to be late than never make it to our appointed destination? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling