Who was John the Baptist?

Who is this man who appears in the middle of nowhere preaching  baptizing and gathering such large crowds? In Luke 1 we read of his unusual birth and more details are given about his ministry. In Matthew 3, Matthew only announces John the Baptist’s appearance as an adult of approximately 30 years old. However, Matthew does provide a few clues about who exactly this mysterious and eccentric individual is.

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

First, he is identified by a prophecy.

Matthew declares that John is the one who is prophesied of in Isaiah 40:3:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight.’ ” verse 3

Here we see John fulfilling his role as a herald for King Jesus. His voice is crying out announcing the coming of the King and he is calling for the roads to be prepared for the King’s coming. But the roads which John has in mind are not literal roads, but the hearts of men. This is his call for repentance which we’ll examine later. For now, we see the identity of John the Baptist as the promised messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah.

Second, John is identified by his attire. Notice the unusual clothing which John is described as wearing: “camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” (verse 4). Was John unsuccessfully trying to start a new fad? Was this merely a fashion statement? No, but his clothes did make a statement. They identified John as the Elijah who the Old Testament anticipates would come before “the great and dreadful day of the LORD” (Malachi 4:5). In 2 Kings 1:8 Elijah is identified by his hairy appearance and leather belt. The prophecy of the coming of Elijah as a sign of the end times in Malachi 4 had created an urgent anticipation for the appearance of Elijah. Now, finally, after 400 years without a prophet, there appears in the wilderness of Judea who looks and sounds like the prophet Elijah! No wonder the crowds went to him in droves! It was not mere curiosity that motivated the crowds, but Messianic expectancy!

Third, John is identified by his location. There is significance in the fact that John is “in the wilderness.” This would bring to mind the words of Hosea 2:14ff of a day of restoration that will come when Israel is allured to the wilderness where God will “speak comfort to her.”

So with the appearance of John the Baptist, Isaiah’s prophecy of a forerunner to the Messiah, Malachi’s prophecy of the coming of Elijah and Hosea’s prophecy of a coming restoration for the nation of Israel are being fulfilled.

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