Get Ready! Back to all sermons

Date: September 20, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: The Gospel of Matthew

Category: Gospel of Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 3:1–3:17

Tags: John the Baptist, kingdom of heaven, Masaai, repentance

Synopsis: The Bible is full of vivid characters, but few are more striking than John the Baptist. Wearing rough clothing made from camel hair with a leather belt around his waist and subsisting on a diet of locust and wild honey, he came out of nowhere and began to preach. What was his message? What are the connections between John and his ministry and the Old Testament prophets? And how does John’s ministry relate to Jesus? In this message from Matthew 3, entitled “Get Ready!” you will find the answers to these questions. You will also find out what Pastor Cam means when he says, “You have to get down to get in!”

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

When I was in university, at the beginning of each new term or semester it was time to register for my new classes. I occasionally had some flexibility in my course schedule, so I would browse through the catalog looking for classes that interested me. I remember often coming across a class that sounded very interesting. I would read through the course description with growing enthusiasm. But then I would come to the bottom of the paragraph and there, in small print, would be the word: Prerequisites. Then there would follow a list of one or more courses that I had to take first, before I could register for the class that interested me. They were telling me that there were certain things I needed to learn and to know first, before I would be able to benefit fully or even be able to do the work required for the desired class.

The same principle holds true in the spiritual realm. There are certain lessons, experiences or classes, so to speak, which are prerequisite to others. There are certain stages we must pass through in order to move on to succeeding stages. In Matthew 3 we can see this principle clearly. For we discover in this passage that John’s message is a prerequisite to following Jesus. To use academic language, we must complete John’s class before we can enroll in Jesus’ class.

As we pick up the account in Matthew 3, approximately 30 years have passed since the events recorded in Matthew 1 and 2. But to really understand what is happening in Matthew 3, we need to go back even further than that. We need to go all the way back into the Old Testament. There is a prophecy found there in Isaiah 40:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

It was a prophecy of comfort that God sent to his people through his prophet. After announcing that he was about to send them into captivity as a judgment for their sins, he gave them this hope that he would return to rescue the nation and pardon Jerusalem for her sin. And the first signal that this great act of deliverance was about to take place would be a voice crying in the wilderness, calling on the nation to get ready.

Then, many years later, God sent another prophet named Malachi. Listen to his words in Malachi 3:1: Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. God then adds these words through Malachi in Malachi 4:5: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.

Malachi was the last of the writing prophets. Following his ministry, it was as though heaven fell silent. There was no new word from the Lord for 400 years.

Then suddenly, without fanfare, rumors began to circulate of a preacher out in the wilderness of Judea. He was dressed just like the prophet Elijah, in rough clothing woven of camel hair, with a leather belt around his waist, living on a diet of locusts and wild honey. The reports spread. People began to go out to investigate. First in groups of 2 or 3, then more and more, until a flood of people from the whole region were trekking the 20 or so miles out into the wilderness to the banks of the Jordan River. As they gathered, they could see the crowd pressing around the edge of the river. As they drew near, they heard it: the voice; an authoritative voice crying out with clear, ringing tones. Could it be the voice in the wilderness that Isaiah had prophesied so many years before? Could it be the promised messenger? Could this be the Elijah the prophet as promised by Malachi?

That was the question that everyone was asking. Before he introduces him or answers that question for us, however, Matthew tells us the fundamental text of his preaching. It is short, simple and powerful: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Let’s take the second part of that first: the kingdom of heaven. We have said that each gospel writer had a specific focus or message that he wanted to emphasize to his readers. This is at the heart of Matthew’s purpose. The phrase, “the kingdom of heaven” is a favorite of his. He will refer to it over 30 times in his Gospel. While the phrase is unique to his writing, it is clear by comparing parallel passages in the other gospels that he is using this as a synonym to the phrase they use, which is “kingdom of God.”

This phrase and the concept behind it are worth exploring in a little more depth. I did some extra reading in a commentary on Matthew by R. T. France and found this explanation:

“there is general agreement that, rather than denoting a specific time, place, or situation called “the kingdom”—the phrase “the kingdom of God” in both its Hebrew and Greek forms denotes the dynamic concept of “God ruling.”… Matthew’s summary of John’s (and Jesus’) declaration, “The kingdom of heaven has arrived,” might thus be paraphrased as “God’s promised reign is beginning” or “God is now taking control.”

France goes on to say:

“While the actual phrase “the kingship of God” does not occur frequently in either the OT or later Jewish writings, the concept of God’s rule or sovereignty is fundamental to both. The confident and repeated declaration by the psalmists that “Yahweh reigns” embodies the universal Hebrew conviction, expressed in a rich variety of ways from Genesis to Malachi, that God, as the creator of this world, is in control of it and of all who are in it. But alongside this unquestioned datum of the eternal sovereignty of God there developed a sense that all was not as God would have it in his world, and with this the hope of a time to come when God’s rule would be more fully and openly implemented and acknowledged”

And I was especially intrigued when he quoted this Kaddish prayer taken from the Jewish liturgy of Jesus’ day:

“May God let his kingship rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the whole lifetime of the house of Israel, speedily and soon.”

The kingship of God. The kingship of heaven. God ruling in all spheres of life, on earth as he does in heaven. This was the hope and prayer of the devout Jews of Jesus’ day. They knew it was not yet so. And they prayed that it would come soon. And then this voice came, crying out: “The kingship of heaven; the rule of God has come near.” And the rumors flew and the people flocked to hear him. What they heard was thrilling and exciting, but also shocking and disturbing. For this was the rest of the message:

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

In other words, there was a prerequisite. To enter the kingdom of heaven and become part of what was about to take place; to enroll in the kingdom of heaven, there was a prerequisite. Repent.

Let’s look at that word. Once again, I went to the commentaries and the dictionaries and found this:

to change one’s way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness...Though in English a focal component of repent is the sorrow or contrition that a person experiences because of sin, the emphasis in μετανοέω (the Greek word) seems to be more specifically the total change, both in thought and behavior, with respect to how one should both think and act. Whether the focus is upon attitude or behavior varies somewhat in different contexts.(Eugene Nida)

At the heart of the word is the concept that there is a before and after. And the two are fundamentally different. While there may not be an overnight change in terms of every detail of life, there is a dramatic change in the direction of travel and in the desires of the heart to move in a different direction: to march to the beat of a very different drummer.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. This is the prerequisite. Before we can experience the kingdom of God in all of its richness, we must bow our heads and our hearts and submit to his rule in our lives. We must acknowledge him as King.

Let me illustrate it this way. Entering the kingdom of heaven is like entering a traditional Maasai home or manyatta. The traditional Maasai home is made of sticks and branches woven together and then plastered with a mixture of mud, clay and cow dung. The houses themselves are very low. But the entrance is even lower. You have to get down, almost on your knees to get through the doorway into the house. You have to get down to get in.

That’s the way it is with the kingdom of heaven as well. You have to get down to get in. Inside are all the riches of God’s kingdom; “at God’s right hand there are pleasures forevermore.” Members of the kingdom of heaven are “blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places.” But you have to get down to get in. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Now, after introducing John’s message, Matthew, with his interest in fulfilled prophecy, identifies John as the fulfillment of God’s words through Isaiah:

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.’ ”

God is fulfilling his promises. Get ready. God and his kingship are about to make themselves visible and present on the earth in a new way. But you have to get down to get in.

The inner act of repentance was then symbolized by an external act as described in verses 5-6:

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

There is some discussion about what baptism signified within the Jewish culture of that day. The Jews did practice ritual ablutions as a regular feature of their religious practice, symbolizing cleansing. But baptism as a ritual term, signifying not only cleansing, but a one-time initiation was not practiced by the Jews themselves. There is some reference to proselyte baptism, in which a Gentile wishing to become a member of the Jewish community, both religiously and culturally, would baptism himself in water. But this act of someone baptizing (or immersing) another in water as a symbolic act seems to be introduced here by John as something new.

We are told that it was accompanied by the confession of sins, so it was a symbol of their repentance. John also makes it clear that the symbol was meaningless unless it was accompanied by genuine repentance as manifested by changed behavior. We see this in John’s words to the religious crowd who came out to see what was going on.

7 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? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

In Luke’s Gospel, we find that John did not only insist on evidence of true repentance from the Pharisees and Sadducees, but from all his audience. In that account in Luke 3, we see John giving specific instructions of “fruit in keeping with repentance” to the soldiers in his audience, and to tax collectors. We are faced with the reality that true repentance involves a radical change in life style, values and actions.

What is radical about John’s words recorded here by Matthew was his insistence that the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religiously respectable Jews of the day, also had to repent. He says to them, as he said to all: You have to get down to get in. Not just down in the water, but down in repentance of heart. This was radical stuff, because they assumed they were already part of the kingdom of heaven. They thought they had the kingdom of heaven all figured out. After all, they were descendants of Abraham; respectable members, even leaders in the racial, cultural and religious community that traced its roots all the way back to Abraham. But look at how John pricks this bubble:

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. (verse 9)

In France’s commentary, he points out that this reference to stones is a possible pun, based on the Hebrew as well as the Aramaic language spoken in Jesus’ day; In Hebrew, the word for children is “banim” and the word for stones is “abanim”. In Aramaic it is “banayya” and “abanayya.”

The bottom line is a blow to their Jewish pride. Claiming Jewish ancestry was of no value in seeking entrance to the kingdom of heaven. You have to get down to get in. “Repent, for the kingship of God is at hand.”

John follows this with even more vivid imagery, warning the Jews that their whole edifice of Jewish presumption and rituals of worship was useless unless it was accompanied by true, heart repentance.

10 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.

It is a vivid image. You lay an axe down at the root of a tree as a way of marking a tree for destruction and actually preparing for the act. A tree with an axe lying at its roots is a tree about to be chopped down and burned. The image here can be applied to the nation as a whole and the whole religious superstructure of the Judaism of the day and the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. It can also reference the individual Jew and his or her response to the approach of the kingdom of heaven. In either case, the message is the same: You have to get down to get in.

John now moves on to the second, even more significant part of his message. He is the messenger, calling out to the nation to prepare. Prepare for what? The coming kingdom of heaven; the coming rule of God. We might even say the coming of God himself. If you go back to the passage in Isaiah 40 and the voice crying in the wilderness, the message is “Prepare the way of the Lord.” We tend to read that and understand “the Lord” as referring to Jesus. But to the Jews, the rendering “Lord” did not refer to the Messiah per se. It was bigger than that. If you go back to the original Hebrew of Isaiah 40:3, it is “Yahweh”, the name of God himself. “Lord” was how they referred to him out of reverential respect for his special name. Get ready. God himself is coming. And so he goes on to take the focus off himself and point to the One who was coming after him.

“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. 12 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.”

These words have sparked much discussion. But the essential message is clear. John is telling his hearers that he is not the main act. He is just the warm up. The real star of the show is yet to make his appearance. “Get ready”. I am just the prequel to the main event. In fact, the one who is coming after me is so much greater than I am, I am not even worth to carry his sandals. Jesus is God himself in human form. Remember the name in the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14? “Immanuel”. God with us. God as man.

Not only is he greater than I am, but he will bring with him a greater baptism. I am just baptizing symbolically with water, to signify repentance. The one who comes after me will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

What is the reference here? The baptism with the Holy Spirit speaks of the act of God when he poured out his Holy Spirit on the church for the first time at the day of Pentecost. The Scripture also teaches that when a person places faith in Jesus Christ as Savior from sin, at that moment they are also baptized with the Holy Spirit, who enters the believer and dwells in him.

But what about the reference to fire? Some equate the fire to the flames of fire that appeared above the heads of each believer on the day of Pentecost. But I believe there is a more direct reference here in the context. Fire is mentioned in verse 10 when we are told that the unfruitful trees will be thrown in the fire. Verse 12 also speaks of the chaff being burned with unquenchable fire. In the context, fire is a symbol of God’s judgment. The coming of God to the earth is always a “good news, bad news” event. For those who repent and put their faith in God, it is good news. For those who refuse to believe and choose to continue in their prideful, self-willed ways, there is the promise of coming judgment. When God appears upon the earth, he brings both; the baptism with the Holy Spirit or the baptism with fire. The coming of God and his kingdom to earth will ultimately winnow all, and separate them into two categories: wheat and chaff. True subjects of God’s rule and the pretenders and rebels who persist in going their own way.

This is the stark reality and contrast in John’s preaching. Turn or burn. The choice is ours. Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. We have to get down to get in.

But repentance alone is not enough. John’s ultimate role was to point to Jesus. I love the way verse13 starts: “Then Jesus came…” Don’t you love that? “Then Jesus came…” He’s the answer to all our questions. He is the ultimate sequel, the final chapter, the main event, the star of the show. But it is intriguing that in his first public appearance he took a humble role.

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

Why did Jesus insist on being baptized by John? The simple answer is found in Jesus’ own words: “to fulfill all righteousness.” “For now, it is the right thing to do.” But why was it the right thing to do? John’s baptism was a baptism that symbolized repentance. Jesus was without sin. He had nothing to repent of. But John’s baptism served more than one purpose. It was a symbol of repentance, but it was also an act of identification; an initiation rite into the move of God and the kingdom of God. By being baptized, Jesus was identifying himself with John and his ministry and the move of God that was taking place as a result of his preaching. Being baptized by John was a symbol of being prepared for the coming rule of God. Jesus wanted to take that mark on himself.

I also see here an act of humility and obedience. Jesus was baptized, not because he felt like it, or because it was a convenient thing to do. Jesus was baptized because it was the right thing to do within the will of God. He was demonstrating that God’s kingdom is about God’s rule and God’s righteousness no matter how ridiculous or publicly humbling that might be.

What followed was absolutely stunning in its significance.

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Did you ever wish God would just open heaven and speak? Wipe away all doubt? Just make things crystal clear? Do away with the symbols and the mysterious images and just speak in clear language? He’s done it. Right here. The heavens opened. Remember, John’s message was about the kingdom of heaven drawing near. Here is heaven opened and God himself speaking from heaven. This is what he said:

This is my beloved Son.

Can he say it any more clearly than that? The warm up act is about to retreat from the stage. The main event is here. The Son of God has arrived, the star of the show; the concert of God’s love, grace and mercy is about to enter a whole new phase. The kingdom of heaven has come down to earth. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Get ready! The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The rule and kingship of God has appeared among men in a new way. God is inviting all to come in and become a part of his kingdom. But there is a prerequisite. You have to get down to get in. You have to repent of your own pride and self-righteousness and independent living. You have to bow your head, both figuratively and literally and submit to the reign of God in your life. And you must believe what the voice of God said from heaven to those who stood by the river Jordan that day. This is my beloved Son.

And when you believe that, another incredible truth opens up. It is a truth about the immeasurable love of God. The words that God spoke from heaven that day bring to my mind the words spoken on another occasion, when God approached his servant Abraham and asked of him the ultimate sacrifice. The story is told in Genesis 22:

He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains…Take your only son, your beloved son…and offer him.

Incredibly, Abraham obeyed God and went up on the mountain and laid his son on the altar. But then God intervened and spoke to Abraham. Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him. God provided another sacrifice and Isaac was spared.

Jesus is introduced by God himself in very similar language. This is my Son, my only Son, the Son whom I love.

This Son would also walk up a mountain, carrying a cross just like Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice. This Son was also tied, no nailed to the wood of that cross. Only there was no last minute call from heaven, there was no last minute reprieve. God’s Son, his beloved Son, the one in whom he was well pleased, died on that cross. The Son of God was also the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

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)

Jesus also said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)

He is the way into the kingdom of heaven. But there is a prerequisite. You have to get down to get in. Humble yourself. Repent. And put your faith in Jesus as the Son of God who died for our sins.

QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION

  1. How would you define “repentance”?
  2. Can a person enter the kingdom of God without repenting? Why or why not?
  3. Describe what repentance did (or did not) feel like in your experience of becoming a follower of Christ? What changed in your life?
  4. Why was John’s message shocking to the Jews (especially the Pharisees and Sadducees)?
  5. Discuss your understanding of the phrase “kingdom of heaven”. Has your understanding changed over time? If so, how?
  6. What is your understanding of the “baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire”?
  7. Why do you think Jesus insisted on being baptized by John? What do you think he meant by the phrase, “to fulfill all righteousness”? Is there something God wants you to do, but you have resisted or procrastinated because it didn’t seem important or necessary to you?
  8. What are the theological implications of the scene following Jesus’ baptism?
  9. What are some practical (life) applications from our study of Matthew 3?