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.’”
Matthew 3:1-3 (NIV)
The “herald” is a long-standing historical figure across many cultures. The role of the herald was to go before a king or queen to announce his/her impending arrival so that the royal subjects could prepare to greet the monarch appropriately. In the story of Daniel, it was a herald who told the Babylonian people how to respond appropriately (bow) before Nebuchadnezzar’s statue (Daniel 3:3-5). God, through the prophet Habakkuk (note: one doesn’t get to quote Habakkuk very often), ordered that His words be written down so that “a herald may run with it” (Hab 2:2).
The Hebrew people of Jesus’ day were abuzz with Messianic experts teaching and lecturing on who the Messiah would be and what it would look like when the Messiah arrived. It is not unlike the abundant number of authors and lecturers today who wax eloquent on when the Second Coming of Christ will take place. For the record, the so-called experts of Jesus day were dead-wrong in their predictions. Since “nothing is new under the sun,” I tend to assume that today’s experts are most likely dead wrong, too. But they certainly do sell some books.
Remember that Matthew’s writing was motivated by sharing with his fellow Hebrews that Jesus was the Messiah they’d been waiting for. One of the Messianic tidbits of which Matthew’s audience would have been well aware was that the last of the prophets predicted that the prophet Elijah would appear before the “Day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). They would have connected Matthew’s description of John the Baptist with Elijah.
Description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8:
“He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.”
Matthew’s description of John the Baptist:
“John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist.”
Matthew’s audience also believed that the Messiah would be a King, and they knew that every king has a Herald.
John the Baptist was Jesus’ Herald. Later in Matthew’s account, Jesus will acknowledge that John was the embodiment of Elijah that Malachi prophesied, but the “experts” didn’t recognize him for who he was. John’s rather impressive backstory is recorded in the opening chapters of Luke. Jesus and John were cousins. They knew each other. Their brief exchange in today’s chapter seems to reveal that John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus knew that John was His herald.
In the quiet this morning, I found myself ruminating on two things.
First, I was reminded that in each of Paul’s letters to Timothy he referred to himself as a “herald” even before claiming to be an apostle and teacher. As a follower of Jesus, I’m charged with being an ambassador of Christ’s kingdom on earth. I guess that makes me a herald, as well. I’ve never really thought about that before.
Second, I’m reminded that later in Matthew’s account John himself sent his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one?” (Matt 11:1-3). In today’s chapter John seems to have no doubt. Later, he does doubt. I wonder if even John had preconceived notions about what Jesus would do and how He would present Himself to the world. Jesus certainly didn’t immediately fulfill John’s prophecies of judgment and a baptism of fire.
So, as a self-proclaimed herald of the King of Heaven, I’m reminded that it’s a very human thing to be confused about who Jesus is. I’ve observed many who judge Jesus based on the description they were taught by so-called institutional experts or the description of Jesus they’ve been given by clownish televangelists hawking their own books and building their own personal kingdoms on earth.
Which, is why, time-and-time-again, I bring my chapter-a-day journey back to the primary source material of Matthew’s account. I try to let go of preconceived notions. I try to shut out what others have said about Jesus. I once again read the account with fresh eyes and an open heart. I want to meet the King of Heaven anew, that I might be an effective and honest herald on earth.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.