John was a powerful prophet and preacher. He was far from ordinary. His preaching demanded repentance (Matt. 3:2). What is repentance? It is the determination of an individual to turn away from sin; to repent is to will or to resolve to sin no more. It is a common misconception that repentance is sorrow for sin. II Corinthians 7:10 teaches otherwise - "For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation..." Genuine sorrow over sin will produce repentance, but the sorrow itself is not repentance. Also, some mistakenly believe that repentance is the changed actions of a person. It is true that reformation of life grows out of repentance, but such is distinct from it. Repentance is in the heart or mind of an individual; reformation is the actual correction of one's evil ways. When John the baptizer preached, the motivating factor for people to repent was that the kingdom of heaven was at hand (i.e., God's kingdom, the church, was near to being established; cf. Matt. 16:18,19; Mark 9:1; Acts 2).
John preached that the people should turn from their sins and be immersed in water to be forgiven (Luke 3:3). The baptism that John administered was authorized by God (John 1:33), but it is no longer valid today (e.g., Acts 19:1ff). Today, there is only one baptism (Eph. 4:5), and that is the baptism commanded by Christ (Matt. 28:19,20) which is to be done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It too is for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). John's baptism looked forward to Christ (Matt. 3:11) and was designed to bring the Jews back to the old covenant. The baptism commanded by Christ looks backward to His death (Rom. 6:3-6) and is designed to bring all to the new covenant. John's baptism did not require faith in Christ, whereas the baptism Jesus commanded does require it (Mark 16:16).
John the baptizer had been written about centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah - "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the LORD; make His paths straight'" (Matt. 3:3). This prophecy could relate to no one but John, for no other prophet ever made the wilderness his scene of preaching. It is clear that John, as God's messenger (Mark 1:2) had a very specific work to do; that is, to prepare the people for Jesus. John did exactly that.
Matthew 3:4 says - "Now John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey." John's manner of life certainly differed from that of his disciples. His attire is similar to Elijah's (II Kings 1:8). Although his diet would not be embraced by many today, locusts were permitted for consumption under the Jewish law (Lev. 11:22).
Matthew 3:5 reads - "Then Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him." A great number of people from all of the surrounding regions came out to John the baptizer. Some claim that this year was a Sabbatical year under the old law (cf. Lev. 25), and this would explain how the Israelites had sufficient time to travel into the wilderness and listen to the prophet who many likely supposed to be the Messiah.
John, in the Jordan River, immersed those who came confessing their sins. Interestingly, the baptism commanded by Jesus only calls for a confession of faith in Christ, not a verbal confession of sin (cf. Acts 8:37; Rom. 10:9,10). Of course, ultimately this distinction is irrelevant since one who submits to the baptism that Jesus commanded is affirming, at the very least, his sinfulness in a non-verbal way. Why would a person be immersed in water for the forgiveness of sin if he did not believe there was sin in his life that needed forgiving?
Tomorrow we will continue this study in Matthew 3 as we learn more about the preaching of John the baptizer.