Some thirty years passed between chapters 2 and 3 of Matthew, during which Jesus lived in Nazareth and worked as a carpenter. But the time came for Him to begin His public ministry which would culminate at the cross. For over 400 years, the nation had not heard the voice of a prophet. Then John appeared and a great revival took place.
It does not take a very careful reading of the Gospels to notice that although each of them begins in a manner significantly different from the others, they come together at the point of recording the appearance and work of John the Baptist. This is no accident, of course, because John’s words pointed to the coming of Christ, and his baptism of Jesus marked the official commencement of Christ’s ministry.
We know Jesus’ baptism was the official starting point of His ministry based on the words of Peter to the disciples after the ascension of Jesus following His resurrection. Peter wanted the disciples to choose another witness to take the place of Judas, who had betrayed Jesus, listing as a requirement for this replacement that he be “one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism” (Ac.1.21–22). Since John’s baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of Jesus’ work, the witness had to be chosen from those who had been present from that defining moment forward.
The appearance of John as the necessary forerunner of the Messiah had also been prophesied in the Old Testament, most clearly in Isaiah 40.3 and in Malachi 3.1;4.5–6. The first of these texts is the one cited by Matthew himself in v.3.
“The voice of one calling in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
As for the other verses, Ma.3.1 reads, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me,” and Ma.4.5–6, the very last verses of the Old Testament say, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” An angel had told John’s father, Zechariah, that John would fulfill this last prophecy (Lk.1.17), and Jesus subsequently identified John as the “Elijah” Malachi had foretold (Mt.17.10–13).
The fulfillment of these prophecies could hardly have been left out, and by introducing John as their exact fulfillment, Matthew rightly ties together the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. There had not been a prophet since Malachi. But after four hundred silent years, the flow of God’s revelation starts again as Matthew picks up precisely where Malachi had left off.
William Barclay said the coming of John was like “a light which lit up the dark places” and “a wind which swept from God throughout the country.”
John the Baptist was a great man, whose greatness is overshadowed only because Christians rightly focus on the life and work of Jesus, whom he preceded and announced. John said of Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less” (Jn.3.30). But Jesus said of John, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Mt.11.11). If Jesus had not come when he did, we would undoubtedly think of John in company with such other outstanding Old Testament figures as Elijah and Elisha.
In Luke’s Gospel, the ministry of John is dated to the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, which would have been sometime in the year a.d. 26 (Lk.3.1). In that year both John and Jesus would have been about thirty years old. John dressed like his great predecessor Elijah, wearing a rough camel’s hair coat bound with a leather belt (II Ki.1.8), and he preached in the Jordan Valley, calling Israel to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. His message is summarized by Matthew in v.2: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Harry Ironside wrote that “such a ministry is needed greatly today when men have lost, in large measure, the sense of the sinfulness of sin,” adding, “It is useless to preach the gospel of the grace of God to men who have no realization of their need of that grace.”
Although Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each mention John the Baptist, what they tell about him varies significantly. Mark is the most direct. He introduces John as the messenger who was sent ahead of Jesus, using words that are the same as some of those used by Matthew. Luke is most extensive. He offers a lengthy account of John’s birth (forty-five verses in chapter 1) and a substantial record of John’s teaching (twenty verses in chapter 3). The author of the fourth Gospel introduces John as early as the prologue (Jn.1.6–8), records his denial that he was the Messiah or Christ (vv.19–28), and highlights his testimony that Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (vv.29–34). John also mentions John the Baptist later in his Gospel (Jn.3.22–36; 5.33–36).
As does Luke, Matthew emphasizes John’s teaching. But it is not the ethical teaching he emphasizes: “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none” (Lk.3.11); tax collectors should not “collect any more than [they] are required to” (v.13); soldiers should not “extort money” or “accuse people falsely — be content with your pay” (v.14). In Matthew, John’s teaching concerns the coming of the kingdom of heaven and the need to prepare for it by repentance and a forward-looking faith in the Messiah.