John the Baptist was appointed by God to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the kingdom of heaven, that is, God’s kingdom (Luke 1). The kingdom would arrive when the Messiah, Israel’s king, came. John said the kingdom was near (Matthew 3:2). There was a sense of urgency and expectation. John prepared Israel by preaching a baptism of repentance (verse 11). The people had to be spiritually prepared by turning from their sins to the Lord.
John’s ministry was in fulfilment of Isaiah 40. He was the voice crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness;
make a straight highway for our God in the desert.
Every valley will be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill will be leveled;
the uneven ground will become smooth
and the rough places, a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will appear,
and all humanity together will see it,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Isaiah 40:3-5 CSB)
John’s message was not just ‘repent’. Repentance was to prepare Israel for the coming of her King:
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove his sandals. He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ (Matthew 3:11)
Repentance was necessary to receive their King but how would they know Him when He came? John’s task was not simply to baptise but to identify the Messiah when He came. John himself didn’t know for sure who the one coming after him was.
One day Jesus, John’s cousin, came to be baptised by Him. Instantly he realised that he was the one who should be baptised by Jesus. He protested but Jesus said He needed to be baptised by John: ‘Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfil all righteousness’ (Matthew 3:15). Jesus’ answer has puzzled many. The most likely explanation is that as the Saviour of sinners Jesus identified with us and was baptised in our place, perhaps a sign of what would later take place at Calvary where He died in our place.
‘When Jesus was baptised, he went up immediately from the water. The heavens suddenly opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice from heaven said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased”’ (Matthew 3:16-17).
This was the crowning moment for John. After baptising Jesus the heavens opened and John saw the Spirit like a dove coming down on Jesus. This was the sign to him that Jesus was indeed the Messiah who would save Israel. The voice from heaven was the second witness to Jesus’ true identity: Jesus was not only God’s King; He was God’s beloved Son!
While we weren’t there to witness this great moment in the history of the world, we have the privilege of reading Matthew’s witness to the coming of God’s King to Israel and the world. Through Matthew we know Jesus identified with us in His baptism, and that He’s the Messiah, the one who baptises us with the Holy Spirit when we turn to Christ. Have you acknowledged Jesus as King, as your Lord and Saviour? Have you been baptised in water for the forgiveness of your sins, whether as a child or adult? Have you been baptised with the Holy Spirit, meaning He now dwells in you and leads you?
Prayer: Lord, thank you for the ministry of John, preparing Israel for her Messiah. Lord, use us to prepare the way for our friends and family, colleagues and neighbours, to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Give us boldness to testify to Jesus and encourage us by bringing men and women to Christ through our witness, in Jesus’ name. Amen.