In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
“A voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.’”
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”Matthew 3:1-12
The Divine Author
At the hinge of the old and new covenants, centuries of Messianic typology and tradition culminated in the advent of Jesus Christ. Like a skilled novelist, the divine author of salvation history weaves together people, places, and events to advance his master plot.
Joshua and Jesus at the Jordan River
Geographically, the Israelites recognized the Jordan river as the barrier God miraculously parted to lead his nation into the Promised Land (Joshua 3). Joshua and Jesus bear the same name (Yehoshua, or Yeshua for short). Forty years earlier, God had parted the Red Sea to deliver his children out of Egyptian slavery. Following Moses, the Israelites traversed the barren wilderness of the Judean desert. Then Joshua led them into “the land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17; Numbers 13:27).
Yet the journey did not end in Canaan. The prophets continually pointed to a liberator who would restore Jerusalem and Zion with features not of this world but of paradise.
The baby shall play by the viper’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.
Isaiah 51:3 (RSV)
At that time they will call Jerusalem “the Lord’s throne.” All nations will gather together there to honor the name of the Lord at Jerusalem, and they will no longer stubbornly follow their wicked heart.
Exult greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
Behold: your king is coming to you,
a just savior is he,
Humble, and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
In Scripture, Jerusalem and Mount Zion synonymously refer to the “city of God” (Psalm 87). A feminine figure, she is a daughter, mother, and bride: the saints are “born in her” (Psalm 87:5).
Elijah and John the Baptist
A fiery John the Baptist, clothed in camel’s hair and girt with a leather belt, unmistakably summoned the figure of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Malachi had foretold the coming of a messenger who would “prepare the way before me” (3:1). He names the messenger “Elijah.”
Now I am sending to you
Elijah the prophet,
Before the day of the Lord comes,
the great and terrible day.
As with Joshua, the Lord performed spectacular miracles through Elijah at the Jordan river. By dipping in the Jordan seven times, Naaman the Syrian emerged clean from his leprosy (2 Kings 5:14). Elijah also parted the Jordan river with his mantle and crossed over with Elisha. While witnessing his master being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elisha received a double portion of his spirit as requested (2 Kings 2:8-12).
Passing the Mantle
The ever-significant Jordan river witnessed Elijah’s passing of his mantle to Elisha, and John’s passing of his mission to Jesus. Humbly, the Forerunner bowed to the one whose sandals he was not worthy to “carry” or “untie” (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16). The Bridegroom who came to the Jordan river to be baptized by John “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).
Parallels between Elisha and Jesus, the successors of Elijah and John, thicken the plot further. Both healed a leper (2 Kings 5:1–19; synoptic Gospels), revived the dead (2 Kings 4:32–37; all Gospels), and multiplied loaves to feed a multitude (2 Kings 4:42–44; all Gospels).
The Bridegroom and His Friend
Finally, reading Isaiah 40:3 in light of the new covenant, all four Gospels identify Isaiah’s “voice of one crying out in the desert” (Isaiah 40:3) with John the Baptist. As the “friend of the bridegroom,” the Forerunner announced the arrival of the man espoused to his bride, Israel. With yearning, the bridegroom courts his beloved in the desert:
Behold, Yeshua comes to the Jordan river
To lead us to Mount Zion, our mother!