In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:“ A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
The New Testament begins with four books about the life and teachings of Jesus, each with its own unique perspective. These books are collectively known as “gospels” because their purpose is to proclaim the gospel, or “good news”, and they contain both stories about the life of Jesus and collections of his teachings. Most scholars believe that Mark, rather than Matthew, was the first of the gospels to be written, but in the traditional arrangement of the New Testament, Matthew is placed first.
When one remembers that the Bible strives to offer a theological rather than chronological perspective on history, the placement of Matthew as the first book of the New Testament is quite reasonable. Matthew is concerned with showing the reader than Jesus is the fulfillment of many prophecies. He often juxtaposes events in the life of Jesus with quotes from the Hebrew prophetic books, with the editorial comment “this event happened in fulfillment of this prophecy”. In this way Matthew provides a bridge from the Old to the New testaments. In one respect, he’s “preparing the way of the Lord” by showing thematic connections. It’s interesting to me that Matthew can get quite creative with these at times. He will quote a passage from Isaiah or one of the other prophets, which when read in its original context refers to one thing, and apply it to something different. For example, Jeremiah 31:15 describes Rachel weeping for her lost children, and in its original context was a poetic description of the depths of loss the Jewish exiles felt in Babylon. Matthew also sees the passage as applying to the bereaved mothers in Bethlehem after Herod’s infamous slaughter of the innocents.
Isaiah 40 describes a voice crying in the wilderness and urging preparations that should be made in anticipation of God’s intervention on behalf of his people. In Isaiah’s time, people would have understood this passage as a promise that God would devise a way to allow the exiled Jews to return to their ancestral lands. Matthew understands Isaiah’s description might also be applied to John the Baptist, who literally lived and preached in the wilderness, and whose call to repentance certainly served to prepare the way for Jesus. By interpreting familiar scriptures in new ways, Matthew attempts to show his readers that Jesus is both the continuation and completion of God’s redemptive efforts throughout history.
The Bible is often described as a “living” book. For me, that has meant that each time I read through it, it speaks to me in a different way. It also means that there is a lot of leeway for differing interpretations and understandings of how to apply its principles to one’s life. I can only imagine the flak Matthew probably received from those who did not think that their scriptures might apply to Jesus as well as ancient Israel. As Matthew understood it, the scriptures prepared the way for the coming of Jesus. I think this is still true.
The Bible can lead us to God, but it isn’t God. God can best be understood through the life and teachings of Jesus. God isn’t a capricious, angry “sky god”, zapping all nonbelievers with bolts of lightning. And he isn’t Santa Claus, dispensing goodies to good boys and girls and lumps of coal to bad ones. God is like Jesus, and each time I read the stories of Jesus as he is remembered by the gospel writers, I gain a greater understanding of just what really good news that is.