John the Baptist is a difficult character for many modern readers to relate to. Partly, this is because we are told so little about him, and what we are told tends to leave us bewildered. Who was this man? What was the purpose of his message? And why did he dress and eat like some sort of homeless wild man?
This is one of those times where understanding the culture and history of the people who lived at the time really helps us to understand the message of the text. To us, living two thousand years later, Matthew’s description of John as living in the wilderness, eating locusts and dressing in camel hair simply sounds… well, insane. But to John’s audience - to the people living in Judea in the first century, who grew up learning about Moses, the Exodus and the Promised Land - his actions communicated something very powerful and specific.
Imagine if someone today put on a tri-corner hat, got on a boat in Boston harbor and dumped a bunch of tea in the water as a protest against an unfair tax increase. We wouldn’t think he dressed that way because he was crazy (well, maybe a BIT crazy…), we would recognize that he was making a political point. He is intentionally dressing like one of the Founding Fathers, and he is hurling tea in the water because that’s how our ancestors protested British taxation. As people who grew up learning about the Boston Tea Party, we get the reference and therefore the point he is trying to make.
John was doing something very similar. He didn’t go out into “a wilderness;” he lived in The Wilderness - the place where Moses led the people because they needed to repent of their sin before entering the Promised Land. His clothes and diet weren’t random - he was dressing like one of Israel’s “Founding Fathers” who had lived in that wilderness for four decades, eating whatever was provided to them. And John didn’t just baptize some people in a random creek. He baptized them in the Jordan River - the river their ancestors crossed when Joshua led them into the Promised Land to become the people of God.
John’s message was clear and convincing. God was about to do something huge - as big as when He freed their ancestors from slavery and brought them to the Promised Land. If they wanted to be ready - if they wanted to be a part of what God had in store - then they needed to turn their backs (literally) on the world they knew. They needed to come out to the wilderness, just as their ancestors had done, and repent of their sins. As they did so, he dunked them in the Jordan, turning them around so that the Wilderness of Sin was behind them, and the Promised Land was ahead of them.
When the ancient Israelites had repented and were ready to enter the Promised Land, Joshua led them across the river to conquer Jericho and claim the promise of God. Now as the people are again repenting - ready for God to bring about His Kingdom, a new "Joshua" ("Jesus" and "Joshua" are the same name in the original language) arrives. He too steps into the waters of the Jordan, not because He needed to be forgiven, but because that’s what "Joshua" does - He crosses the Jordan and leads His people into the Promised Land. As He steps out of the water, heaven itself opens and the Lord announces His Messiah. This time, God didn’t just send just anyone to lead the people; He sent His Son.
This wasn’t just a reenactment; this was the event for which the entire Old Testament was merely a rehearsal. The real show - the true revolution - has just begun.