Matthew skips over nearly 30 years between 2:23 and 3:1 and in so doing he has emphasized for us his priority on the identity and role of Jesus over that of providing mere biographical information. This is further emphasized for us in that Matthew picks up all these years later not with Jesus, but with John, for John’s story serves to underscore the messianic role and function that Jesus will fulfill.
A common form of Jewish messianic hope is represented by the notion that Elijah would return as a precursor to the arrival of the Messiah (cf. Matt. 11:14; 17:10-13; Mal. 3:23-24; 4:5-6). Matthew takes care to present John in this light to underscore ultimately, the identity of Jesus, for in presenting John as he did, Matthew shows that John’s emergence upon the scene marks the beginning of a whole new paradigm in Israel. Consider the fact that John has come to the territory of David (3:1) in the spirit of Elijah (cf. 3:4; 2Kings 1:8) preaching a message of repentance (3:2, 7-10; cf. Mal. 3:1-5; 4:5-6), in the context of the nearness of the Kingdom (3:2) and the ultimate judgment of the “mightier one” to come (3:11-12). As Matthew’s story continues to unfold in the chapters that follow, John’s work will continue to give us focus on the character and mission of Jesus (cf. 3:14; 11:1-19; 14:1-12; 16:14-20; 17:9-13; 21:23-27). Matthew breaks his description of John the Baptist into two parts: 3:1-6 highlight John’s ministry, and 3:7-12 his message.
3:1-6: There is no coincidence in the fact that John appears in the “wilderness of Judea” (or “desert”) for it had long been expected that the precursor to messiah’s arrival would come from the Wilderness (Is. 40:3-4; 42:14-55:13; Ezek. 20:33-44; Hos. 2:14-15). This also provides us with a connection between Moses in the Wilderness and the story of Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven (mentioned by Matthew 33 times in his Gospel) was near; there was urgency in John, an urgency that came from the very nature of his calling, as seen in the quotation from Isaiah 40:3.
John is further connected to the prophets of old in Matthew’s description of his wardrobe and menu. His dress is associated with that of Elijah (2Kings 1:8; cf. Zech. 13:4). His menu is that of a prophet fully consecrated to God. The impact of John’s ministry out in the desert was profound indeed; people came from all around to hear his message. They not only heard it, but they responded to it as well, confession their sins and repenting, being baptized in the Jordan River.