A question that arose out of yesterday night’s (11/01/19) study was: ‘what does it mean for John to prepare the way for the Lord and to make his paths straight?’
One of the joys of studying Holy Scripture as a community is that we get to hear and ask questions that we normally wouldn’t ask of the Bible had we studied it purely on our own. The study of the Bible has always been a communal activity (the Old Testament was always read and studied in the synagogue or in family settings, and the New Testament books and letters were always circulated in faith communities and often read aloud), and it is therefore apt that our time together is marked by deep grappling with the Word for information and transformation.
So, what does it mean to ‘make straight paths for him?’ The questioner also followed up by asking: ‘Jesus never went off track because he never sinned [and we know that Jesus’ baptism was not because he sinned but in order to identify with sinners whom he had come to save] – why then would John need to put him on a straight path?’
And I think that is when our exegesis of the text went off a little, because the notion of ‘making straight paths’ is intimately connected to the idea of ‘preparing the way for the Lord’. In other words, to make straight paths is an extension of what it means to prepare the way for the Lord. This quote actually comes from Isaiah 40:3 and it says ‘a voice of one calling: ‘in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’. Thus, to make straight paths is part of preparing the way, and in the context of a desert [which is the situation that the passage describes], this involved the creation of a road that is straight, unmistakable (like a visible highway), level, and smooth in order to make the arrival to a destination possible without difficulty. The modern equivalent could be to roll out the red carpet signalling the coming of someone special and important.
Therefore, the passage does not mean that Jesus went off track and needed to be brought back on the straight path. Rather, it emphasizes John’s role as one who would come to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. John the Baptist knew his duty, and this is especially seen in his humble statement: ‘He [Jesus Christ] must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30, ESV). May we similarly seek to live lives to point to the glory of Christ above all else.