In St. Louis (as probably in many other cities), there is a street called Kingshighway (all one word). In medieval times, a highway maintained by the crown would have been called the King’s highway. There are African American spirituals that refer to the King’s highway (Walking up the King’s highway). This passage from Isaiah refers to the Holy Way (or road). Early Christians understood themselves as the people on the Way (or Road: see Acts 9:2)
I believe that self-appellation has reference to the passage in Isaiah concerning the Way in the wilderness, and particularly this passage in Isaiah 35. When John’s disciples as Jesus if he is the Messiah, or should they wait for another, Jesus responds at least in part with a quote from this passage, about the lame walking, the blind seeing, and the deaf hearing. The image of the highway (or in this case, the Holy Road) in the wilderness was a common one in prophecy around the restoration of Jerusalem. Rather than wandering 40 years in the wilderness, as the people did on the Exodus from Egypt, this time, they would return on a straight and level highway.
John’s baptism in the Jordan also signaled an understanding of a new conquest of the promised land. By reentering the land across the Jordan from the wilderness, John and those baptized by him indicated that they didn’t believe the current occupants legitimate. The Qumran community shared that belief, and was preparing to join the Messiah in a new war of conquest. Interestingly, Jesus’ name is just Joshua (Yeshua) transliterated into Greek.
In Matthew’s telling, John the Baptist, despite his early confidence that Jesus is the coming one, has come to doubt that he is the expected Messiah, and so he sends his disciples to ask. Jesus quotes this passage. Yes, he indicates, he is about the restoration of the people from their exile. And indeed John was the one to call the people to prepare the wilderness way. But, Jesus is not what Qumran was expecting, or even John. He is the new Moses, not the new Joshua. He is leading the people on a new wilderness way.
Over and over again in the Gospel accounts, we see references to the new wilderness way. The cycle of miracles bracketed by a miraculous sea crossing and feed in the wilderness seems fundamental to the early Christian self-understanding. In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus compares himself to the manna in the desert. In Acts, Paul is given letters to persecute anyone who self-identifies as belonging to the Way. Jesus wasn’t the Messiah throwing off the Roman yoke and reestablishing the throne of David in Jerusalem. He was the new Moses, leading the people through the wilderness.
How would our understanding of being Christian change if we shared that early Christian self-understanding as people on the wilderness way, feeding on Jesus as our sustenance for the journey? We haven’t arrived, and probably aren’t meant to arrive. We are on the way. Church would be our tabernacle, as in the Book of Numbers, around which the people is organized in the wilderness. We would be ready to strike camp at a moment’s notice and go to a new place and find God there.