The message that John the Baptist brought to God’s people was relatively simple. He called upon them to repent, for the kingdom of heaven was near. This was necessary because the people had a job to do. They had to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight (Matt 3:1-3). What did John mean by the metaphor “make his paths straight?” Jesus was driving toward a destination that required a straight highway. Israel’s job was to build it. For us, like them, life is a highway, and we are the builders.
Driving in the Mountains
I gained a fresh appreciation for this metaphor while driving in Tennessee. You see, I’ve lived in Michigan my entire life. The terrain in Michigan is relatively flat, at least in lower Michigan. It’s not as flat as the plains states. We have gently rolling hills, but they’re low and not very steep. This makes it easy to build roads and highways in Michigan. Whatever your destination, you can typically drive there in a straight line.
Tennessee was eye opening. You can’t drive anywhere in a straight line. They have much bigger, steeper hills and even mountains. It’s a beautiful landscape, but a pain to navigate. Towns may be close to one another, relatively speaking, but it takes a long time to get from one to the other. You have to go up and down and around these hills, which adds time and difficulty to the trip.
Traveling in ancient Judea was just as challenging. Like Tennessee, the terrain of Judea was dominated by hills, valleys, and mountains. Nobody walked in a straight line to get anywhere. On the one hand, the Romans had perfected road building. They didn’t go over or around obstacles. They went through them (typically by the shovels and sweat of thousands of soldiers and slaves). They were able to build remarkably straight and level roads. Judeans, on the other hand, had to make due with the roads that they had. Roads that had been around for a long time. Additionally, there wasn’t much by way of highways. Without the manpower and technology of the Romans, Judean road builders had to submit to the topography of the landscape. This resulted in roads that were harder to travel.
In the ancient world, good roads and straight highways were essential for commerce and communication. Without them, there would be little commercial interaction and communication. People avoided going places that couldn’t be accessed by good roads.
Preparing the Way for JesusGod’s plan was that the nations would stream to Israel so that they could learn the ways of the Lord (Isa 2:2-4). Obedience to God’s instructions would demonstrate their wisdom and earn Israel the respect and admiration of its neighbors (Deut 4:5-8). When Jesus arrived, he would lead Israel into this new and glorious era. They would be a light unto the nations. In order for this to happen, the nations need to interact with and communicate with Israel. Maybe you already see where I’m going with this.
This new era could come the easy way or the hard way. The easy way was for Israel to repent and begin to live obediently before Jesus arrived. This would make his job much easier. By contrast, if Jesus came and found his people disobedient, he would have to invest time and energy getting them on track before they could fulfill their kingdom role as a light unto the nations.
Only an obedient people could accomplish the work Jesus was going to give them. In order to usher in God’s kingdom, they needed to live as its citizens. In order to be an example to the nations, they needed to obey the laws of the kingdom. In addition, they needed to do this in a way that the nations could easily see. God’s assessment was that this wasn’t happening. Therefore, he sent John to call them to repentance.
Modern Highway Building
As modern day Christians, we are the heirs of the kingdom project announced in the law and the prophets and fulfilled in Jesus. Like ancient Israel, we can make this project easy or difficult. We need to obey Jesus’ instructions. If we do, we will be a light unto the nations. This is the only way we can demonstrate our wisdom and earn the respect of our neighbors. By doing so, we will be an example to the nations. When they see us obeying and thriving, hopefully they will stream to us to learn the ways of the Lord. This is the easy, straight path.
Without obedience, Jesus work is made difficult. At best, our neighbors won’t have an example of a better option. They will simply continue to blindly follow their worldly ways. At worst, our disobedience will turn them away from God, because we have grossly misrepresented him and his kingdom. This is the difficult path. In this scenario, God is forced to deal with us first before he can extend his grace to the world.
Let’s commit to obedience. When necessary, let’s repent by turning away from our disobedience. By doing this, we will make Jesus way easy and his paths straight.