He wasn’t a Baptist. Or a Protestant. But John the Baptizer certainly was a protester.
John shunned the benefits that human rulers provided to their towns: streets, markets, wells, walls, peace and security. He wouldn’t trade with them. His clothes were an anti-fashion statement, fashioned from whatever he scavenged — like hair from a dead camel. He survived on bush tucker — like grasshoppers and wild honey (3:4). Who knows where he took shelter from rain and wind.
He wouldn’t even go to town to deliver his message. To hear him, people travelled out to the wild uncontrolled places, far from the ears of Herod (3:1). There they heard his seditious message, for John was the voice of another king. He spoke on behalf of the heavenly ruler, calling his people to get ready for the most momentous event in history: the unveiling of divine government (3:2). No wonder he couldn’t show his face in town!
Previous prophets had explained why God’s people had been sent into exile — because they resisted his reign (e.g. Isaiah 39:6). And they said that, one day, the heavenly sovereign would restore his people and come to reign over them again:
Isaiah 40:9–10 (NIV)
9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.
Before YHWH’s reign was re-established, a prophet would call Israel to straighten up and prepare for his arrival:
Isaiah 40:3 (NIV)
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Matthew says Isaiah was talking about John the Baptizer (3:3).
Previously, God had moved out of his house (the temple), and left Jerusalem to her fate because of her uncleanness (Ezekiel 8–11). If he was to return, his people must be purified. John offered purification rights there in the wilderness—baptism, a symbolic washing (3:6). This was controversial, for the Torah made provision for purifying people through the temple and its sacrificial system, not through ablutions in the wild. John’s acts were not only a protest against Herod as the wrong kingship; they were also a protest against the temple as corrupt and unable to cleanse God’s people. I wonder what tension this caused in John’s family; his father was a priest (Luke 1:5).
But John was not alone. Many first-century Jews were convinced that the temple and its leaders were irredeemably corrupt. Some of them lived away from Jerusalem too, in the wilderness of Judea, at Qumran. We know how they thought because their writings survived — the Dead Sea Scrolls. Like John, they saw themselves as “a voice in the wilderness” fulfilling Isaiah’s words. Like John, they offered ritual cleansing away from the temple. The miqveh where they baptized is still there if you visit Qumran today.
So, John raised his prophetic voice against the political and religious leaders of Israel. Their rulers would be replaced soon, when YHWH came to restore his kingdom reign. God would bypass the temple leaders who failed to cleanse his people. God’s axe was already poised to cut down his unproductive tree (3:10), and John did not want to be in Jerusalem when that happened. His life in the wilderness was his message.
But like the prophets before him, John’s message was not only of judgement as God overturned the injustice of the current rule. It was also a message of hope: God’s reign would be restored. The voice in the wilderness called his people to submit to his reign. The excitement was palpable. Heaven’s ruler was about to be revealed.
What others have said: ancient texts help us understand John
Dead Sea Scroll 1QS is a “Charter of a Jewish Sectarian Association.” The Qumran community call themselves the Yahad, and they see themselves as God’s true people, a voice in the wilderness, purifying Israel apart from the temple. Translation by Michael O. Wise et al, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 129.
1QS column 8, rows 4–14:
Col. 8 … When such men as these come to be in Israel, 5then shall the party of the Yahad truly be established, an “eternal planting”, a temple for Israel, and—mystery!—a Holy 6of Holies for Aaron; true witnesses to justice, chosen by God’s will to atone for the land and to recompense 7the wicked their due. …
They shall be a blameless and true house in Israel, 10upholding the covenant of eternal statutes. They shall be an acceptable sacrifice, atoning for the land and ringing in the verdict against evil, so that perversity ceases to exist. …
When such men as these come to be in Israel, 13conforming to these doctrines, they shall separate from the session of perverse men to go to the wilderness, there to prepare the way of truth, 14as it is written, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
The Aramaic version of Isaiah regularly translates the Hebrew concept of God reigning as “the kingdom of your God”. Examples quoted by Craig A. Evans, From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 40:
Get you up to a high mountain, prophets who herald good tidings to Zion; lift up your voice with force, you who herald good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up, fear not; say to the cities of the house of Judah, “The kingdom of your God is revealed!” (Aramaic Isa. 40:9) …
How beautiful upon the mountains of the land of Israel are the feet of him who announces, who publishes peace, who announces good tidings, who publishes salvation, who says to the congregation of Zion, “The kingdom of your God is revealed.” (Aramaic Isa. 52:7)