“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 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.’” (Matthew 3:1-3 ESV)
All four gospels mention John the Baptist, or baptizer, who was present at the beginning of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry (Mark 1:2-14; Luke 1:5-25, 57-80; 3:3-20; John 1:6-8, 19-39). It was John who identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
John’s ministry occurred in the wilderness of Judea. If you have ever taken a trip to the Holy Land, you probably observed that this southwest geographic portion of Israel remains a wasteland and desert. It is dry and desolate. How fitting that God would produce spiritual fruit in a geographically fruitless region.
“The region to the immediate west of the Dead Sea—an utterly barren desert. The Jewish sect of the Essenes had significant communities in this region. But there is no biblical evidence to suggest that John was in any way connected with that sect. John seems to have preached near the northern end of this region, close by where the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea (Matt. 3:6). This was a full day’s journey from Jerusalem and seems an odd location to announce the arrival of a King. But it is perfectly in keeping with God’s ways (1 Cor. 1:26–29),” explains Dr. John MacArthur.
John’s message and preaching was clear and concise: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”The command from God to repent was no mere change of one’s thinking. It was not mere regret or remorse. Rather, it was an inward change to radically turn from sin. This change involved one’s thinking, emotions and will. Jesus’s first sermon contained the same command (Matt. 4:17).
Why did John command the people to repent? It was because God’s rule and reign, or kingdom, was near. It was about to appear in the person and work of Jesus Christ. John appealed for people to reject the sinful obstacles from their lives that would hinder their reception of the Messiah and his kingdom.
Repentance is an acceptance of the will of God and a resulting obedience evidencing that acceptance (Gal. 5:1-6; James 2:14-26). All true repentance occurs because of God’s sovereign grace (Acts 11:18; 2 Cor. 7:9-10; Eph. 2:5-7). Without such grace, repentance is futile and will not occur (Jer. 13:23). John was God’s instrument to bring about true repentance to Israel.
As is Matthew’s characteristic, he referred to Old Testament prophecy to validate John’s ministry. He explained that John was the individual of whom Isaiah the Prophet spoke of many centuries before (Isaiah 40:1-5). All four Gospels declare that this passage from Isaiah applied to John the Baptist. John was preparing the people while at the same preparing the way for the Messiah; Jesus Christ.
“The ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy did not occur in 538 BC, when the exiled Judahites began returning to the Promised Land, but nearly six hundred years later, during the first century AD. As we will see, the initial returnees were not faithful to God, so the hard conditions of exile persisted until He finally visited His people in the person of Jesus Christ. Through Isaiah, the Lord called the people to prepare themselves, but they could not do so. A mightier move of the Holy Spirit through John was needed to get the people ready for the Messiah,” explains Dr. R. C. Sproul.
The Holy Spirit continues His work of bringing people to repentance by sovereign, monergistic regeneration (John 3:1-8; Titus 3:1-5). God commands believers in Christ to herald the Gospel (Matt. 28:16-20) while He alone brings spiritual life to those who are spiritually dead (I Cor. 3:5-9; Eph. 2:1-7).
Soli deo Gloria!