In those days John the Baptizer presented himself in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Be changing your mind [in a manner that bears on your actions], for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ For this is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke, saying,
‘The voice of one crying out:
“In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight paths for him.” ’
Now John himself wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. At that time were streaming to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region along the Jordan, and they were being immersed by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his immersings, he said to them,
‘You brood of vipers! Who taught you to flee from the coming wrath? Bear fruit in equal weight to your repentance, then. And do not suppose to be saying in yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I’m saying to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Already the ax lies at the foot of the trees; every tree therefore not making good fruit is cut and thrown into the fire. Indeed I myself immerse you in water toward a change of mind [that bears on actions], but one is coming after who is more powerful than me, whose sandals I am not sufficient to pick up. He himself will immerse you in Holy Spirit and fire, whose winnowing-fork is in his hand. He will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.’
When reading the gospels we should always be aware of when the narrative is making a break in itself and when we are. The chapter divisions and subheadings in our English Bibles, much like the fact that I’m parceling out the gospels here in digestible pieces, are unfortunate in that they train us to read whole-cloth portions of the story in loosely connected segments and as artificial episodes—as charmingly quilted rather than masterfully woven. If we aren’t tracking the flow of the narrative, we can miss when it is that the writers have placed multiple incidents within the same block of time, say, to interpret each other; further, when the narrative does initiate break from itself, its unique significance can be lost. So never mind the big numeral ‘3’ that likely interposes its typeface into flow of the page, and never mind the bold chapter heading. Rather, as we think of the story so far, we recall a long, dry genealogy whose relevance to the narrative you might well still debate, a bit of narration about Joseph the kind-of-but-not-really father of Jesus, and a drama between some anonymous Eastern scholars and a mad client king, all before we finally get Jesus in the story—but as a child who can’t actually participate in the story’s action. By the time our setting has landed in Nazareth in 2:23 and we are given the overt suggestion that this will at last be the setting from which Jesus emerges for his messianic campaign (‘He will be called a Nazarene’), we’re primed with expectation. We’re ready for a fully grown Jesus’ initial public appearance, which by every reasonable expectation should be ‘Matthew’s next sentence. ‘Matthew’ meets our bated breath with an oblique ‘MEANWHILE . . .’
That’s certainly the effect of the English translations. One could argue that the Greek is even more devious, containing the language of public appearance and back-ending its subject, a bit more literally rendered: ‘In those days there presented himself . . . John.’ The formula is right, but the public figure is all wrong, not the Jesus already-and-not-a-moment-too-soon introduced but yet another entirely new character. If I’m dragging this point out, it’s because I want us to appreciate fully and impatiently how John disrupts the narrative in order for us to integrate that disruption into the story’s larger movement. That is, we should ask why John does appear here-and-now in the place we should expect Jesus to occupy doing the political organizing we should expect the Messiah to do.
Contrary to ‘Matthew’s phrasing, ‘This is the one who was spoken of . . .,’ neither v. 3 nor the Isaiah 40 passage it quotes really clarify who John is. You’ll note a slightly different lineation of the Isaiah quote above. Since punctuation does not accompany the Greek manuscripts, this is in order to be more faithful to the base Isaiah 40 passage as it reads consistently in both the Hebrew (Masoretic) and Greek (Septuagint) versions. The Greek text of ‘Matthew’ is a perfect quotation of the Septuagint, wherein the reading is just as comfortably, ‘A voice of one calling: “In the desert . . .”‘ as our typical English renderings, punctuated, ‘A voice of one calling out in the desert: “. . .”‘ My interest in this seemingly minute distinction is twofold. First, to steer us from thinking that Isaiah leads us to expect a heraldic wilderness figure whose bill John fits, so that we can attend to Isaiah’s more native concerns, namely, a return from exile via the wilderness, led by Yhwh, which should yet again call the Exodus to mind as part of an emerging theme. Second and relatedly, ‘In the desert prepare,’ not only shifts the location of the straight-path-making but helps define the story’s location, namely, the wilderness. That is to say, if John is instructing the people to make straight paths in the wilderness—rather than being a voice-in-the-wilderness asking that straight paths be made generally—he appears to imply that his Israelite audience is in this wilderness. Through John, ‘Matthew’ is effectively identifying the story’s location with Isaiah’s exilic location, and this is not without important political implications. What is familiar to ‘Matthew’ from Isaiah, then, is not the proclaiming figure but the location. To be sure, the typical English translation’s use of Isaiah is true, and John was a voice calling out from the desert to prepare the Lord’s coming. But like so much else in ‘Matthew,’ it is built only upon a foundation that is thoroughly native to the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Isaiah quotation will say more about who the Messiah is than about who John is, so our first identity clues are not until v. 4, at which point they are unambiguous. According to 2 Kings 1:8, at least King Ahaziah knew that ‘a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist’ could only be the prophet Elijah. (And much of the Greek wording is carried over from the Septuagint to ‘Matthew.’) So if John is cast in the figure of Elijah, what is Elijah’s relation to the Messiah? Our answer this time is hardly buried in the Hebrew Bible but rather stands at its outer edge, in the final chapter of the final book of the First Testament canon: ‘See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of Yhwh comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents, or else I will come and strike the land with a curse’ (Mal 4:5-6). What ‘the Day of the Lord’ is as a developing theme in the Prophets is more complex than may be helpful to unpack now, but what I take as important here is the expected role of an Elijah figure in the anticipated intervention of Yhwh into Israel’s affairs. The existence of John as a living reference to Elijah heightens this expectation but by no means clarifies either his own role in the messianic era nor its nature. He does not yet refer forward to a Messiah nor deny that he is one. He is merely proclaiming a coming end to exile (which, technically, already ended) and instituting a ritual washing, or perhaps initiation rite, somehow connected with a radical reorientation of self (‘repentance’) and a ‘coming wrath’ (‘the Day of the Lord’?). Thus John’s ministry is decidedly his own.
That all leaves much open to question, which is why it shouldn’t be surprising that delegations from two fundamentally opposed political parties come to scope John out. Nor that John rails against them, though the Pharisees were not so unpopular a movement as the gospels would suggest to us, even if the Sadducees could be viewed as collaborators with the Romans. What might be surprising is that he rails against the basis of their confidence, something that ‘Matthew’ has seemed to value until this point through the genealogy: descendancy from Abraham. John does not merely temper its value alongside products of a changed mind (‘fruit in equal weight to your repentance’); he radically subverts it when claiming that Yhwh could manufacture children of the Covenant outside of blood and from outside of Covenant. Now, to say that descendancy from Abraham is valuable only insofar as it is lived out in justice/righteousness is certainly only to articulate the same spirit of the Law that cuts off members of Israel for, essentially, non-participation in the Law-governed body politic of Israel. What is scandalous is that John is accusing Pharisees—the most rigorous students and practitioners of the Law imaginable, whose entire project of Torah-obedience was intended to bring about Israel’s deliverance—of not bearing fruit that prepares for the messianic age.
Only after offensively rejecting Israel’s most politically powerful party and one of Israel’s most patriotic liberationist parties does John refer his ministry forward, yet it is still to an ambiguous referent—one whose activities with Holy Spirit and fire are prefigured by the image of John’s immersing people in water. Presumably it is a fire meant to be identified with that into which the righteous Pharisees are hazard to be thrown, a fire accompanying ‘the Day of the Lord.’ Will the candidate-Messiah Jesus fit the bill for the lofty profile John casts? We await Jesus’ long-delayed public appearance.
Bringing It Home
The setting I’m attempting to set up along with ‘Matthew’ is at least in part one of expectation and uncertainty. It is easy to behold the orthodox, canonical understanding of Jesus we’ve developed, divined and canonized in the Church and to see the clear contours of his outline in the First Testament. What is difficult is imagining the difficulty in imagining this kind of a Messiah and this kind of a deliverance, divined from an oceanic depth of the holy texts and their interpretations, amid scores of opinions and theories and schools, all subject at once to the overwhelming sense that Yhwh had abandoned Israel and the conviction that Yhwh could not possibly have done. At the same time, it should not be so hard for us to envisage sympathetically. It is remotely akin to the place we occupy when we feel directionless or abandoned and, despite the Bibles on our shelves and our personal knowledge of the Trinity, we find ourselves overwhelmed in the uncertainty of where we are to look to for Gød’s action or trace breaking in. It isn’t because we don’t know the Bible well enough or Gød well enough that we cannot be sure whether we can recognize Gød’s movement in our life; we may be simply overwhelmed by Gød’s possibility and unpredictability, or else we may not yet be sufficiently prepared for either. But fortunately, Gød does not wait for us to guess correctly before Gød arrives in Gød’s faithfulness.