We read several prophecies of one who is to prepare the way for the Lord. Isaiah tells us;
“ A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah 40:30
A very provocative statement indeed. There are a few introductory remarks about some of the language in this text that I would like to address first.
Meaning of the Words
The word translated as ‘prepare’ here is not the most common Hebrew word for this action. The Hebrew word ‘kun’ is primarily used to ‘express the idea of preparation or making ready for something’. The word in our text is ‘panu’. This word (‘panu’)means “to turn toward something or to turn your face back to someone.” As a matter of fact, the origin root of this word is the Hebrew word for face or countenance (panah).
There is a specific prophetic reason why this word is used instead of the common word for preparation. The reason is that the ministry of John the Baptist and Elijah are the ones being referred to here. This verse continues to be quite provocative because the word for ‘straight’ here is ‘yashar’, Yashar means straight, upright, right… which is related (family word) of Yeshua (Yeshua is the Hebrew name of Jesus, meaning Salvation)
Now it gets more interesting in the word for ‘desert’. We are told that the Messiah (Christ) is to come as lightning out of the east to the west (Matthew 24:27). The west is where the scattered sheep of the house of Israel are. This is where the multitudes are found. All the words in context with those in the west and the multitudes are associated with the words for mixing and scattering. One of these words is the word translated as ‘Arab’ in the Old Testament. This word ‘Arab’ means to mix or to mingle, which was the result of the house of Israel being scattered and mixed with the nations (Hosea 7:8). It comes from the root ‘arav’ which first appears as the word ‘evening’ in Genesis 1:5. This is because the evening is a mixture of light and darkness.
It is a word that represents the direction that God’s people will go, and the word used in Aramaic to describe the feet and toes of the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2:4143. The word translated as desert in our text is ‘arabah’, referring to the people who lived there. In Exodus 12:38, “arabah” is the word used to describe the ‘mixed multitude’ that came out of Egypt in the Exodus.
“And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. A ‘mixed multitude’ also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds. Exodus 12:37–38 (ESV)
There is an interesting combination of words used here that provide the background for the ministry of John the Baptist of which is the testimony for WHOM John the Baptist is preparing the way.
Baptism of what?
In all four gospels we are given details of the ministry of John the baptizer. We are informed that John’s baptism was the baptism of repentance in Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:8, and John 1:26. In Mark, we are told that John’s baptism was for the ‘remission of sins’. When one agrees to come to the mikveh (Baptism), this tells us that God has already done a work in their heart, and coming to Baptism is the fruit of that faith. We are informed in the gospels and in the book of Romans that the good news came first to the Jew, then to the Gentiles.
John’s primary audience was Jewish, including Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew3:7). His baptism was the baptism of repentance. In Hebrew, the act of repentance is employed in the word ‘shuv’. ‘Shuv’ means to ‘turn back to where you came from’, and first appears in Genesis 3:19 when God tells Adam that he will return (shuv) to the dust of the ground from where he was taken. This concept was seen in the word for ‘prepare’ in Isaiah 40:3 that we discussed earlier.
It was not the gentiles who needed to repent. The gentiles first had to believe before they could repent. This was directed toward His own, the house of Judah, particularly the Pharisees and Sadducees, for they had turned away from the Torah (Instructions of God) and taught others to do so as well.
“REPENT! For the kingdom of God is at hand” cried both John and Jesus. How had they turned away from God? By turning away from the Torah (Instructions of God), the Word of God, which is God Himself. John’s immersion into the living Jordan River was after they had turned their hearts toward God and repented.
Water does not cause repentance. Repentance comes from the heart. It is also the fulfilling of righteousness that John was the witness of this cleansing, for John was a priest. It was the work and duty of the priests to ‘inspect’ the cleanness or continued uncleanness of an individual. John’s baptism was a picture of repentance, which only prepares the way for God.
This preparation is also seen in the Exodus from Egypt. Before the Passover (the lamb), Pharaoh had to ‘let go’ of the people. He had to turn them loose, so they could begin the journey back to the land that Abraham had crossed over to as well.
The baptism of repentance was for the turning of a straying heart back to the word of God.
Jesus tells us that HE is in the Word.
John 5:39 (ESV)
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me”
Luke 24:44 (ESV)
“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
When His own people hear of the Messiah, they have had their hearts already prepared for such a revelation by John’s baptism of repentance. Trusting God and obeying Him is the fruit of repentance. If the Jewish leaders of the time were really seeking God and following His word, then they would have seen and received Christ (the Messiah). They were not following the Torah (word) and so did not bear the fruit of the word (Torah) and welcome the prophesied Messiah.
Matthew 3:7–8 (ESV)
But 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 wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
We know from the record of the New Testament, that a large majority of Jesus’ followers were not baptized by John. However, many of the disciples of John were prepared and readily accepted Jesus Christ later on.
Acts 19:1–6 (ESV)
“And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.”