A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on May 13, 2018.
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matt. 3:1–12).
From the second to the third chapters of Matthew’s Gospel there exists an approximate 30 year gap. In fact none of the Gospels tell us about Jesus’ childhood experiences in Egypt or Nazareth. While the apocryphal writings provide plenty of exotic tales of Jesus’ childhood, Scripture is silent on the matter. Matthew instead establishes the time as “those days,” meaning the commencement of Jesus’ earthly ministry, which begins not with Jesus but with a kingdom message through a kingdom preacher, John the Baptist.
A Kingdom Preacher
Who was John the Baptist? Luke’s gospel reveals that he was the son of a priest, Zechariah, who was foretold by the angel Gabriel, “And your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:13b–17). Fulfilling the angel’s words, Matthew introduces John in his ministry in the wilderness, describing his clothing and diet, perhaps telling of an extended wild existence: He wore “a garment of camel’s hair and a belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”
Matthew, however, does not describe John’s attire for the sake of novelty but for the sake of his identity. In 2 Kings, the prophet Elijah is described as wearing “a garment of hair, with a belt of leather” (2 Kings 1:8). The book of Malachi concludes with these words, “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (Mal. 4:5). The very sight of John tells of his role as the prophet who comes before that “great and awesome day of the LORD.” Quoting directly from the Greek tradition of Isaiah, Matthew removes any doubt of John’s prophetic fulfillment as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” John came, in the spirit of Elijah, preparing the way for the Christ to come, but how was he preparing the way? John’s ministry was simple: he preached and baptized (a preacher’s dream!).
Who was listening and being baptized? Not a few desert nomads and herdsmen in the wilderness but the people of Jerusalem and “all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” They heard John’s call to repent and received an outward sign of their repentance. Why John began baptizing the people with water is left to speculation, but it is possible that he was drawing from the priestly cleansing practice given to the Levites, in which they were to “sprinkle the water of purification upon them” (Num. 8:7). Regardless, people from all over the region were coming to John, repenting of their sins and being baptized.
What was John preaching? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent: a call to change. Repent: a call to turn. Biblical repentance is a change in sinful thought, word, and deed to righteousness. It is a holistic turning from sin and actively pursuing righteousness. John’s call is specifically to the children of Israel to repent. Why? Because, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The coming of the kingdom was not a foreign topic to Israel. God promised Abraham: “I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you” (Gen. 17:6). After the exodus at Sinai, God declared Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). And, God promised David that he would “establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:13). But, as John preached to Israel, there was no king on the throne in Jerusalem. There was no kingdom over which David’s son reigned. Through Israel’s unfaithfulness, the kingdom had not been kept. Until…John reveals, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” for there is coming a Kingdom Keeper!
What does John mean by “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”? The phrase “kingdom of heaven” is synonymous with “kingdom of God,” as it is used in the other Gospels, and represents the sovereign and redemptive reign of God over His people. However, what the people envisioned of the kingdom of heaven and what unfolded in Jesus’ earthly ministry are two different things. The Jewish understanding of the coming kingdom was of a physically present, socially transforming, political kingdom, not dissimilar to today’s social gospel and earthly transformationalism. But, John preached of a heavenly kingdom. Jesus would later explain, “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), revealing a two kingdoms distinction, an earthly kingdom and a heavenly kingdom.
How does this heavenly kingdom come? The heavenly kingdom comes to earth by its King: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4-5). Matthew’s Gospel begins with the genealogy of the King and recounts worship of the King by gift-bearing wisemen, so it should not surprise us that John testifies of a heavenly kingdom at hand. The inauguration of the heavenly kingdom on earth came in the life, death, and resurrection of King Jesus, Christ our Lord. And, the consummation of the heavenly kingdom will come in His return to earth, establishing His eternal kingdom in a new heaven and new earth.
We see this in the already but not yet language of the heavenly kingdom in Scripture. On the one hand Jesus said, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28), but on the other hand Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). On the one hand Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20–21), but on the other hand Jesus warned, “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:28–29).
In Jesus earthly ministry, He ushered in the kingdom of heaven, and commissioned taking the gospel to the nations. In this sense, we advance the kingdom of heaven on earth with the gospel, a message of hope to Jew and Gentile alike, and a call to worship for people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Jesus did not come to transform culture, establish a political party, or provide you with your best life now. As the Apostle Paul states it as plainly as possible: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).
So, John preaches repentance for the sake of the heavenly kingdom at hand, for the King had come in the Person of Jesus Christ. In Christ our King no longer is the kingdom confined to the national boundaries of Israel, and no longer are kingdom citizens identified by their bloodlines. John, an equal opportunity offender, scolded both the conservative and liberal elites of his society, “do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” No, the kingdom of heaven consists not of earthly bloodlines but of the shed blood of the cross of Christ.
Oh! Precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Through His atoning sacrificial death and securing resurrection, God has raised up stones, like you and me, and made us Abraham’s children in faith. And, Christ is building His Church stone by living stone, as we cry out to our Lord in praise. For the family tree of Abraham in the flesh, “the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”
Apart from faith in Christ, it matters not your specific tribe, tongue, or nation, and “Every tree . . . that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Because the heavenly kingdom is not built on political affiliation or societal influence, John called the societal and cultural leaders of his day to what is most important: repentance and fruit evidencing faith. The kingdom of heaven advances in this earthly kingdom not by cultural change but by the gospel. And the kingdom is built one soul at a time by God’s grace alone through faith in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. Through the gospel God saves His elect in Christ, but apart from Christ, all will receive the due justice of a holy God, for Christ is not only a Kingdom Keeper, but He is also a Kingdom Reaper.
Jesus said of John the Baptist, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:1), but John knew that “he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandal I am not worthy to carry.” John’s baptism was an outward sign of repentance by water, but Christ’s baptism is of fire: cleansing His elect and consuming sinners. Christ ushered in His heavenly kingdom not to remedy all of humanity’s problems, but to remedy humanity. Our greatest need is not a solution for the results of our sin.
Our greatest need is to be saved from our sin and renewed in right relationship with our holy God. Our culture wants to dictate to us what it considers the travesties of our era, seemingly forcing us to respond to what culture deems important. This is not to say that Christians should not engage in culture. Indeed we should. Like exiled Israel in Babylon, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven in the earthly kingdom we are to live and flourish in this earthly kingdom and seek the welfare of the communities in which we live. But, we must guard against allowing culture to dictate what is most important to us as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
As culture tells you what should concern you, consider: when was the last time you heard cultural outrage over having other gods before the One true God, over idolatry, over taking the Lord’s name in vain, over remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy? Are you troubled by the problems in this world more than your consistent offenses to a hoy God? Are you more concerned with the earthly problems of your neighbor than your neighbors’ eternal destiny?
Listen closely to these culturally irrelevant yet eternally significant words: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This metaphorical language is joyful and terrifying. For those who by God’s grace have faith in Christ as your Savior, you joyfully await to be gathered into the barn. But, for those who do not believe there awaits an unquenchable fire. Hear the good news of the kingdom of heaven and believe, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Believe, even today, on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, and you will be saved from the unquenchable fire to come. For those who are in Christ, rejoice in Christ’s kingdom intervention.
Because His heavenly kingdom has come, you are not eternally defined by your place in this earthly kingdom, but in Christ “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9–10). As citizens of the eternal heavenly kingdom, remember that in this earthly kingdom we are sojourners and exiles, awaiting our King’s return and the final consummation of the kingdom.
In the new heaven and earth there will not be two kingdoms but one, as heaven and earth unite in righteousness forever. Until that day, be not captivated by the world, the flesh, and the devil, but seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, eagerly awaiting your King’s return, all the while praying, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”