"What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? ... “ (Matthew 11:7-10)

"What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ “ (Matthew 11:7-10)

Is Jesus referring to John the Baptist?

Here Jesus is describing John the Baptist, and he is also clarifying the meaning of "preparing the way."

We also find in Luke a similar attribute to John the Baptist, but not by Jesus:
He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God's salvation.' " (Luke 3:3-6)
So we find here that John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John was also teaching, according to this, "God's salvation."

Jesus was referring to John because one of John's hallmarks was preaching from the desert. Thousands traveled out to the Jordan River to hear him preach and receive baptism from him. John was truly a Prophet of his time and was respected that way.

By Jesus' statement, we can see that Jesus also honored John. John was essentially Jesus' teacher, because Jesus also went out to hear John teach, and he then received baptism from John.

This means, practically, that Jesus accepted John as his spiritual teacher.

What does 'prepared the way' mean and who prepares the way for whom?

To dive deeper into the meaning of 'prepared the way' we must investigate the basis for this terminology. This term originates from the Book of Isaiah Chapter 40:
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)

But this should not be taken out of context. Who is preparing the way for whom?

This is indicated when the full quote of the "voice of one calling" is considered:

A voice of one calling: "In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken." (Isaiah 40:3-5)

Many teach that Isaiah was referring to Jesus with this statement. But it is clear that this is not true. The word "LORD" in the first statement is being translated from the Hebrew word, יְהֹוָה (Yĕhovah). As is obvious from the transliteration, this word is referring to Jehovah.

This means this statement is referring to preparing the way for the Supreme Being. Therefore, to misconstrue this statement as referring to Jesus at some point in the future would not only be dishonest. It would be wrong.

The context of this statement is far broader in application. The last statement of the quote in Isaiah reveals the context is about making a straight path to the Supreme Being. This means focusing our life upon the Supreme Being and developing our loving relationship with God.

But the last line indicates how this could also connect to John: "For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

The "mouth of the LORD" refers to God's messenger or representative. Someone who is speaking for God. Someone who speaks for another person is often referred to as their "mouth" or "mouthpiece."

So as Jesus uses this to describe John, he is referring to the fact that John was one of God's representatives.

We can further understand this meaning in the Book of Malachi.

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before Me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to His temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:1)

So we find that the person preparing the way is "my messenger" - meaning God's messenger because this is God speaking ("says the Lord Almighty")

Does this statement by the Supreme Being mean there is only one messenger of His covenant?

Moses was a messenger of the covenant. David was a messenger. Isaac was a messenger. Abraham was a messenger. Jeremiah was. Malachi is being a messenger as well, as he puts forth these verses.

And according to Jesus, John was also a messenger of the covenant

These messengers all appeared on this earth for those who sought out the Supreme Being during their time. In other words, for those who desire to return to God, the Supreme Being sends His messenger.

Those who interpret Jesus' above statement to mean that John prepared the way for Jesus simply do not understand the real covenant being discussed. So they distort the teachings of Jesus to suit the political hierarchy of their institutions.

Many teach a false “surrender” to Jesus, and that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross will magically save people: They teach being saved through proclamation: that all they need to do is say, "I surrender to Jesus" and they are saved. This is hucksterism. This is cheating.

There is no magic path back to the Supreme Being by way of taking advantage of Jesus' suffering. Jesus himself spent years teaching to people. Why did he spend all that time teaching if we could simply be saved by his body's death on the cross?

Those teachings are what can save us - just as his teachings were able to save those who followed him.

Note that in Malachi 3:1 above, God says clearly that “the messenger of the covenant… will come.” From this, we can see that the Supreme Being is saying that He sends His messengers to “prepare the way before Me.” From this, we can understand that God utilizes His messengers to prepare us, by showing us how to re-develop our relationship with Him.

The words “the way” signify a path or road. “Before Me” indicate the path or road leading to the Supreme Being. Thus we can know the Supreme Being has set up a system where we can return to HIm - by following the teachings of His messengers.

These points are confirmed by God clearly in Malachi. 2:7:
“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction--because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty.”
How much clearer could this be? This statement clarifies that the Supreme Being indeed has had many messengers or representatives. This is why "a priest" is mentioned. As Jesus also taught his disciples and then asked them to teach others, anyone who sincerely receives and applies the knowledge from God’s representative and messenger may pass on that message to others with devotion, thus becoming one of God's messengers.

The operators of God's statement are sincerity and application, meaning the message must be humbly received and applied it to one's life without tainting it with our own interpretations.

Note that Jesus is paraphrasing Isaiah and Malachi, but  3:1, we can see a significant change in the statement as Jesus is referring to the same “way” that God was referring to, but this “way” is “before you” rather than “before Me” as is stated by God in Mal. 3:1 and "for the LORD" in Isaiah. 

This confirms the meaning of the Supreme Being's statement that the “way” is the path back to our relationship with the Supreme Being.

What is a 'swaying reed'?

What about the "reed swayed by the wind"? What does this mean?

Jesus is speaking of those teachers who bend their teachings to please others - in order to gain followers. This is a disease among those who seek to be honored and respected - and those who gain their positions among ecclesiastical institutions through appointment. These are not God's representatives. They are elected by people and thus represent only those who elect them.

John the Baptist was not such a person. He was God's representative and didn't care if his teachings offended those around him or those institutions which sought to persecute him and eventually put him in jail and then murdered his body.

They did not go all the way out to the desert to see someone who was finely dressed or someone who says a lot of mumbo jumbo. They went to the desert to hear from God's messenger: Someone who delivers the message of the Supreme Being:

God’s covenant: The Supreme Being's promise to each of us that if we come to know Him and love Him with all our heart and soul and all of our being, we will return to Him, and He will give us full protection.

What is the 'covenant'?

Some ecclesiastical teachers say that the covenant was some kind of pact between Abraham and God pertaining to the coming of Jesus - that God was beholden to Abraham to deliver Jesus to save the Jews.

Rather, the covenant is part of the relationship of loving service between the Supreme Being and those who are devoted to Him. The Supreme Being promises us that if we take a few steps toward Him - He will take many more towards us.

God promises that if we rely upon Him and take refuge in Him, we will have nothing to fear. He promises us that we can depend upon Him for protection. If we re-develop our loving service relationship with Him, he will bring us back home to Him. This is His promise. This is His covenant to every living being who wants to return to His loving embrace.

This is confirmed by the Supreme Being in the Book of Malachi:
“But for you who revere My Name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” (Malachi 4:2)
This is a clear statement. The Supreme Being was disappointed in many of the peoples of Israel who disobeyed (and offended) His previous messengers such as Moses and Abraham. They taught that salvation comes for those who love and revere the Supreme Being and His Holy Names.

They didn't have to wait in some kind of purgatory for the coming of Jesus, nor do people today have to wait for a so-called second coming. A person can worship the Supreme Being and glorify His Holy Names right now - and His covenant will be there.

When considered holistically, the Scriptures clarify that in every age the Supreme Being sends His representatives to teach by example and words the true path of returning to Him. These messengers each carry with them the covenant of the relationship of loving service to the Supreme Being.