“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2).
When it comes to the Kingdom of heaven or Kingdom of God the NT teaches three aspects of fulfillment – 1. the “already” 2. the “receiving” and 3. the imminent consummation or “not yet” to the Kingdom promises. The Kingdom’s “already” aspect in the NT can be seen in that Jews and Gentiles were entering Christ’s spiritual Kingdom through repentance and faith and observing it workout in their midst powerfully through Jesus’ healing and driving out demons (and that of the disciples and Apostles). The imminent “not yet” aspect to the Kingdom points to God saving a remnant (Jews and Gentiles) while at the same time judging the wicked among Israel and closing the Old Covenant (OC) age while at the same time establishing the New Covenant (NC) age through Christ’s Second Appearing in AD 70. Israel had been waiting roughly two thousand years for the Messiah and His Kingdom and now within a span of forty years, it was truly “at hand” and within their grasp.
Unfortunately when most futurist eschatologies have addressed the eschatology of John the Baptist they are willing to develop a truly imminent “already” and “receiving” of the Kingdom promises as being “at hand,” but they have not been willing to see John’s eschatology as having a truly imminent “at hand” consummation to the Kingdom as it pertains to him coming to prepare the way of the “great and dreadful day of the Lord” or Second Coming of Jesus. As we make our way through the eschatology of John the Baptist, we will readily see that this later “not yet” aspect to the NT’s Kingdom promises were no less “at hand” than the “already” and “receiving” aspects to the Kingdom.
Matthew 3:3 / Isaiah 40:6-7, 10 John prepares the way for Christ’s Second Coming
For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight.’” (Matt. 3:3).
“The voice said, “Cry out!” And he said, “What shall I cry?” “All flesh is grass, And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, Because the breath of the Lord blows upon it; Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever.” O Zion, You who bring good tidings, Get up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, You who bring good tidings, Lift up your voice with strength, Lift it up, be not afraid; Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand, And His arm shall rule for Him; Behold, His reward is with Him, And His work before Him.” (Isaiah 40:6-10).
First let’s examine what “the way” in the “desert” that John is preparing as depicted elsewhere in Isaiah to get a broader context:
“He humbles those who dwell on high, he lays the lofty city low; he levels it to the ground
and casts it down to the dust. Feet trample it down— the feet of the oppressed, the footsteps of the poor. The path of the righteous is level; you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth. Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws,” (Isa. 26:4-7).
“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” (Isa. 35)
First, who is the way and how does the Gospel make it level and fruitful?
All of the promises of God are yes and amen – that is, fulfilled “in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:20). He is the embodiment of the Kingdom promises – the new Promised Land or the “Highway of Holiness” [“the way” (John 14:6)] in which all those who were to be saved (or ever will be in the eternal NC age) should enter and walk through faith and repentance.
The way of the Gospel would be level and smooth suggesting that the high mountains are the prideful among Israel that persecuted the poor and lowly and God would vindicate the poor and make low and level their prideful persecutors. The low valleys would be brought up to be level as well – perhaps suggesting that the Gospel for the poor would be manifested in such a way as to lift up the persecuted and heavy burdened from their religious suppressors. Through the gospel the level land would become fertile and blossom into God’s New Paradise/New Creation.
No one among Israel could boast that they had a right to enter this way of the Kingdom through being Abraham’s seed, because God was able, and in fact did turn stones (Gentiles) into the sons of God or living stones in which they along with Jews were built up a New Temple and New Man (Matt. 3:9/1 Pet. 2:1ff./Ephs. 2-3).
Secondly, the message of the voice (John) is to prepare for Christ’s “at hand” Second Coming!
Unfortunately, futurists have avoided doing a thorough exegesis of Isaiah 40 in order to understand that John was preparing the way of Christ’s imminent Second Coming – to be manifested in an imminent harvest judgment for the wicked and salvation for the righteous and repentant here in Matthew 3:2-12.
In hermeneutics one is always called upon to go to the OT passage a NT author quotes, references, or “echoes” in order to find out how the NT author is using it, or see if there are other elements within that OT context that fits what the NT author is developing. This is also very important in that in Jewish hermeneutics often times even if a small portion of an OT passage is quoted, the reader or listener is expected to draw upon the entire chapter, section or theology of the quote. When we do this, we immediately find references of John preparing a way for judgment that harmonizes with John’s use of Malachi 3 in Matthew 11:10-14.
Here is Isaiah we quickly see that the way that is being prepared is not simply a way of an “at hand” “already” aspect to salvation, but includes Christ’s Second Coming in judgment as well. We immediately see what this voice is to cry out, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flower fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isa. 40:6-7) This is connected to the recompense judgment and giving of rewards, “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.” (Isa. 40:10).
Isaiah 40:6-7 / 1 Peter chapters 1 and 4 – John’s imminent eschatology is Peter’s!
Peter quotes Isaiah 40:6-7 in 1 Peter 1:23-24. The immediate context tells us that Peter’s first century audience was “ready” to receive the salvation and inheritance the OT prophets predicted would come at the revealing of Christ at His Second Coming. Later we are told by Peter that this coming salvation and “THE judgment” of “the living and dead” was “ready” to take place and that “the end of all things is at hand.” (1 Pet. 4:5-7). Therefore, the contextual flow of Isaiah 40 tells us that John came to prepare a way of judgment – which answers to an imminent “not yet” aspect to the Kingdoms arrival not just to its “already” or inauguration.
Isaiah 40:10 / Matthew 16:27-28 – John’s imminent eschatology is Jesus’!
Again the message of the one crying out is that of a coming judgment through the Second Coming of Christ (Isa. 40:10). This passage is directly applied to Christ’s Second Coming in Matthew 16:27-28 and Revelation 22:6-12. Jesus taught that He was “about to” come within the lifetimes of some of His first century audience:
‘For, the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father, with his messengers, and then he will reward each, according to his work. Verily I say to you, there are certain of those standing here who shall not taste of death till they may see the Son of Man coming in his reign.’ (Matt. 16:27-28 YLT).
Isaiah 40:10 / Revelation 22:6-12 – John the Baptist’s imminent eschatology is John’s in the book of Revelation
Jesus through John in the book of Revelation, confirms the imminent fulfillment of John the Baptists eschatology of Isaiah 40:
“The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.” “Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll.” I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. 9 But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!” Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.” “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.” (Rev. 22:6-12)
The message John was to cry out as we continue going down in Isaiah 40:10 of God (The Christ) coming in judgment and recompense and reward was fulfilled in an AD 70 – in an “at hand” time frame.
John’s “way” of the Second Coming Judgment in Isaiah 40 is John’s “way” in Malachi 3-4
Jesus clearly identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah that was about to come before the way of judgment (Jesus’ Second Coming to destroy His Temple) could be fulfilled according to Malachi 3-4:
“As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “ ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matt. 11:7-15).
Here Jesus quotes and echo’s the way of Judgment in Malachi 3-4. John is the first messenger that prepares the way for God (Christ) who comes suddenly to His Temple (in AD 70) who purifies the priesthood and burns the wicked (who had persecuted the poor) in judgment. Since AD 70 the Church is God’s purified and established kingdom of priests and kings. In AD 70 a clear “distinction” between the wicked OC kingdom and righteous was revealed in power and great glory.
In Malachi 4:1-5 it is further elaborated that Elijah (whom Jesus says is John the Baptist) would come before this “way” of a fiery “great and dreadful day of the Lord” judgment would take place.
The book of James picks up various OT echo’s concerning the persecution of the rich over the poor and Christ coming as the Sun — in an “at hand” and “at the door” time frame to burn up the grass/wicked and bring the harvest rain to the righteous (James 1-5/Matt. 24:27-33, 34/Mal. 4:2).
The “at hand” “way” of the Second Coming – as Israel’s new deliverance from Babylon / New Eexodus / seeing God’s face in the NC age or New Creation
Before leaving the theme of John/Elijah preparing the “at hand” “way” to the Second Coming of Christ to destroy His Temple in AD 70, it may also be helpful to see how this passage was understood among the Jews and then see how their interpretations of it could also fit an “at hand” AD 70 time frame. Beale and Carson’s work is helpful at this point:
“Nothing in the immediate context of Isa. 40 suggests that Isaiah is referring to anyone other than Yahweh himself returning to Israel as king (Goldingay 2005: 5–7), but the references to special sons in Isa. 7–9 and to the messianic branch in Isa. 11, along with the Servant Songs yet to come (beginning in Isa. 42), do indicate God revealing himself through a specially anointed agent. The “shepherding” imagery of a text as close to ours as 40:11 also dovetails with other prophecies in which a messianic figure is likened to a shepherd (esp. Ezek. 34).
C. Use in Jewish Sources. The most significant pre-Christian Jewish uses of Isa. 40:3 appear in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Rule of the Community declares,
And when these have become a community in Israel in compliance with these arrangements they are to be segregated from within the dwelling of the men of sin to walk to the desert in order to open there His path. As it is written: “In the desert, prepare the way of [YHWH], straighten in the steppe a roadway for our God.” This is the study of the law wh[i]ch he commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age, and according to what the prophets have revealed through his holy spirit. (1QS VIII, 12–16) (All quotations from the Dead Sea Scrolls are from García Martínez and Tigchelaar 1997.)
In short, the Essenes at Qumran viewed their monastic community as the fulfillment of Isa. 40:3. This same interpretation is reflected in an allusion to this Scripture in 1QS IX, 19–20. An allusion in 1QS IV, 1–2 applies the metaphor of making straight paths to the establishment of justice, truth, and the respect for the precepts of God. An even longer explicit quotation of Isa. 40:1–5 appears in a fragment of another Qumran scroll (4Q176 1–2 I, 4–9), but not enough context has been preserved for us to know how it was used.
From a very different, Pharisaic branch of Judaism, Pss. Sol. 8:17 seems to allude to this text when it refers to the Jewish leaders’ (probably literal) grading of rough roads to Jerusalem to prepare the way for the conquering Roman general Pompey to enter the city. This part of the welcome was appropriate for a king, albeit ironic because the king was a foreign invader. Other texts, especially apocalyptic ones, allude to Isa. 40:4–5 with its topographical transformations and its expectations of seeing the Lord’s glory in the context of a coming new age (esp. 1 En. 1:6; Bar. 5:7; As. Mos. 10:4; see Brooke 1994: 130–31). Targum Isaiah at this point appears to change the focus from Yahweh’s coming to the people’s return (Snodgrass 1980: 27).
D. Textual Background. The MT begins, “A voice crying in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,” which the LXX essentially translates literally (changing only the participle to the genitive: “of one crying”). Matthew, like Mark, follows the LXX verbatim. But the parallelism within the OT verse would seem to require that “in the wilderness” modifies “prepare the way” (just as it does in the next line with “make smooth”) rather than “a voice crying,” as in the Gospels. The MT thus continues, “make smooth in the desert a highway for our God,” which the LXX renders as “make straight the paths of our God,” omitting the redundant “in the desert.” Matthew and Mark again follow the LXX verbatim, except that they change “of our God” to “his,” which scarcely alters the meaning.
E. Hermeneutic Employed. The difference between “a voice crying in the wilderness” and a call to “prepare a way in the wilderness” has often been exaggerated. Both in fact fit John the Baptist’s ministry; he (or the Synoptic writers) could easily have seen a double meaning in the position of the phrase in the Hebrew text, as rabbis often did in their exegeses. But the Hebrew also allows for such a double meaning to have been originally intended (Taylor 1997: 25–29).
Originally, Isaiah had in mind a preliminary fulfillment in the return of the Jewish exiles from distant lands to Israel. But his language already reuses “exodus” imagery, making it natural for the evangelists to reapply this imagery in the greater restoration from (spiritual) exile inaugurated by the ministry of Jesus to which John’s preaching pointed (see Childs 2001: 299). And given that no return from Babylon (or Persia or Greece or Rome) ever came anywhere close to fully ending Israel’s hard service, paying for its sins, or leveling (even metaphorically) all its rugged places, and certainly no event prior to Christ’s coming ever revealed the glory of the Lord to all humanity, it seems reasonable to suggest that Isaiah had a more distant, grander fulfillment in mind as well. Hagner (1993: 48) comments, “The words of Isaiah occur in a context of comfort and deliverance from the exile, but they also allude to Messianic fulfillment.” At the very least, that is how a group such as the one at Qumran would have taken it, so that they could apply it to themselves, demonstrating that the NT’s hermeneutic was not a novel appropriation of the text.
Jesus is the anti-type of the deliverance (through Cyrus, Ezra, and Nehemiah) and restoration of coming back into the land from bondage and slavery. He is the one that sets the captives free from the slavery of sin, He is the way of holiness found in the law by which a remnant of Jew and Gentile come into the Kingdom/Heavenly Land/New Creation. In Revelation “Babylon” or the “Great City” is OC Jerusalem from which the righteous are called out from. He is also the coming greater Prophet than Moses who would usher in the “second exodus.” This second exodus motif will be brought out in where John is baptizing and later on in Matthew 4.
As far as understanding the building of a smooth road to be level for a conquering King – this too could be applied to AD 70. If un-repentant, a way was being prepared by another conquering King – and it was ironic that they shouted they wanted Caesar as their king at Christ’s trial and then Christ came in AD 70 as their King (through the army of the Roman Empire – “Caesar”) to destroy their city and Temple.
Christ as “the way” did bring about the in-breaking of the Messianic or NC age from AD 30 – AD 70. In AD 70 Christ’s “at hand” Second Coming was fulfilled and the Church in the eternal NC age see Him “face to face” (Isa. 52:8/1 Cor. 13:12/Rev. 22:4-7). Amen! Selah.
“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2).