The kingdom of heaven (Matt. 3:1-2)

[Sermon audio here.]

Theme: God’s heavenly kingdom has come down to earth in his Son, and we enter it by repentance and faith through the means of grace.

We all like change for the better.  Who of us does not like to see relationships improve, diseases healed and societies transformed?  There are arguably no more powerful influences for immediate and large-scale change than the heads of our local and national governments. Because of the authority vested in a mayor, a president or a king, we naturally care about who they are and what their agenda is.  To an extent, they determine our future – but only in this life.

Kings were very much part of the life of the history of God’s people.  The Israelites knew the weight of oppression under king Pharaoh of Egypt.  They knew life without a king as they wandered in the desert under the leadership of Moses.  Then, after longing for their own king, God blessed the nation of Israel with king David, followed by his son, Solomon: the high point in the Promised Land.  Things, however, rapidly went downhill from there.  And after around 400 years of having their own monarchs, a divided Israel once again found herself under the ruthless rule of the pagan kings of Assyria and Babylon.

However, at the beginning of Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus, we find that the Jews have their own king again, called Herod the Great.  But they are still nevertheless ultimately under the rule of a godless Roman Emperor, Augustus.  Long gone are the golden days of David and Solomon, when the church ruled the land in every respect.  To make matters worse, king Herod was a selfish tyrant!

You can imagine that the Jews wanted change for the better…  But most were not expecting – let alone wanting – the kind of change that was taking place under their very noses in Bethlehem and Galilee, with the birth of a new king named Jesus.

By the end of Matt. 2, this promised Messiah-king of the OT is living an obscure and isolated existence in a little-known village of Nazareth, in the hill country of Galilee.  Jesus, along with his parents Joseph and Mary, have been run out of town by two violent dictators: Herod and his son, Archelaus.

Then, Matthew hits the fast-forward button, and opens his Third Chapter at a time when Jesus is about to begin his public ministry at around the age of 30.  There is no mention of the events leading up to this point.  (Remember, Matthew is being selective for theological reasons.)  Hardly the makings of a world-changer… So, it should not be surprising, then, that the next episode in the unfolding story of Messiah begins with little hype and fanfare.

Enter John the Baptist

Matthew writes in Matt. 3:1: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Here we have the last of the OT prophets setting the stage for the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah.  John the Baptist is the final forerunner to the ministry of Jesus.  He is about to roll out the red carpet, as it were, for the king of the Jews.  But notice, the manner of his entrance.  He comes out of nowhere.  We know practically nothing about him, except that his words fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah.  And that he “wore a garment of camels hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”  Hardly the regalia for a messenger of a king!

However, the most striking background information is that John comes preaching in the wilderness of Judea: an uninhabited region by the river Jordan.  Again, not the place to start a revolution is it.  Why not go straight to the center of Bethlehem to whip up the masses and plot an overthrow?  Instead, John undertakes his ministry away from the public eye.

But, while the wilderness evoked imagery of desolation and exile for God’s people, it nevertheless also symbolises the beginning of new life in the OT.  If you remember, after the Exodus from Egypt, it was in the Sinai desert that God made the Old Covenant with his people and led them into the Promised Land…  And yet, it was not long before God’s people are back in the wilderness again.  This time as exiles because of bad kings and all-round bad behaviour.  And this has been the lot of Israel for about 400 years… until the arrival of Jesus.

Now, out of the wilderness once again, God is about to do something new: something that has never been done before in the history of the salvation of Israel.  The kingdom of heaven has arrived with the coming of Jesus.

But what is the kingdom of heaven?

The coming of the kingdom of heaven

In order for us to understand the nature and purpose of Christ’s kingdom, which cut against the grain of popular Jewish expectations at the time, I want you to notice three things in our text: (i) the kind of messenger John the Baptist is: a prophet, (ii) the medium of his message: preaching, and (iii) the message itself: repentance.

So, to begin, Matthew tells us that John is a prophet.  Like the OT prophets before him, he has been set apart by God to discharge a holy calling: to speak Words of judgment and salvation, on behalf of God, to Israel.  As a prophet John has an explicitly religious office and task. He is not a statesman or political scientist.  He is not a self-help guru or a lawyer or a doctor.  No, he is an expert in the Word of God in sacrificial service to the people of God.  Here we find John about to build upon a legacy of OT prophets whose task was to proclaim new revelation about God, his Messiah and his kingdom.

The preachers we have in the church today are like John the Baptist and the prophets of old.  We, however, have the privilege of the fullness and finality of revelation that has come in Jesus.

The second thing we notice in our text is that John comes preachingSo, what is the big deal, you ask?  The big deal is that – in keeping with his sacred office – John is doing something specifically and overtly religious or sacred.  He is not suggesting a remedy, like a doctor.  He is not prescribing a new law like Caesar.  Neither is he issuing a call to arms like a Roman Centurion.  Nor is he a good citizen suggesting a noble plan to clean up the neighborhood.  No, as someone vested with power and authority from God, John announces the arrival of the eternal kingdom of God: a kingdom that transcends the temporary affairs of civil governments, schools, marriage, business and politics!  While the civil magistrate brandishes the sword to enforce the law, politicians lobby for votes, and businesses market and manipulate people into buying their product, here is a prophet of God who comes preaching the inspired and eternal Word of God.

Preaching was God’s ordained means of building his redemptive kingdom in the OT as well as during the days of the ministry of Jesus.  And it continues to be so in the church today.  It is through the apparent weakness and foolishness of preaching that faith is born and we enter into the kingdom of heaven.

So what, then, is the content of this message of the kingdom of heaven given to a man endowed with a sacred office and delivered through the counter-cultural means of preaching?

John’s message is one of repentance: which is basically a call to turn away from sin to God for salvation.  Now, this message of repentance is not new.  The prophets in the OT repeatedly pleaded with Israel to turn away from her sins and follow after God.  The difference in the NT, however, is that there is now much fuller revelation of God to turn too.  This fullness is the promised Messiah-king of the OT who has been born in the town of Bethlehem.

In his incarnation, Jesus has brought the kingdom of heaven down to earth.

Just as king Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT promise of a Davidic king, so too is Christ’s kingdom the fulfillment of the redemptive kingdom promised to Abraham in the covenant of grace.  And what Israel had in the Promised Land was an earthly preview or foretaste of this heavenly kingdom that would later come in the Last Days of the New Testament.  Now, at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel the end of the age has come with God’s final act of redemption in the revelation of his Son.  The message of the kingdom of heaven is the gospel: which is turn away from the moral corruption of your sins and turn to King Jesus for salvation.

My kingdom is not of this world

Do you see it?  The call to repentance is a call to change for the better.  And yet, it is not a message that you will get from the kingdoms of this world.  In fact, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).  Think about itCivil magistrates and kings use force to govern the world.  But the kingdom of heaven is defined by non-violence and peace.  The kingdoms of this world require a legal system that threatens punishment to maintain order.  While Christ’s kingdom transcends the claims of justice. It is defined by forgiveness and reconciliation.  While the world has limited resources and is decaying towards destruction, the kingdom of God is an eternal storehouse of blessings that has broken open upon us from another age through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Is there anything like the kingdom of heaven on earth?

Beloved, this is it!  In God’s wisdom and good pleasure, he has chosen to make manifest his kingdom here and now in his church.  While we won’t enjoy the fullness of Christ’s kingdom until he returns for a second time, we do nevertheless still experience the in breaking of heaven on earth in corporate worship each Lord’s Day.  When the Word is preached and the sacraments administered, it is Christ who serves us with his gifts of grace from another world.  It is the minister whom God has ordained with the keys to Christ’s kingdom.  As God’s earthly ambassador, and with his authority and blessing, he opens and closes heaven.  It is through the ministry of the Word that we are brought to repentance and faith, and are built up in holiness and comfort unto salvation.

Friends, have you repented of your sins?  Remember that turning over a new moral leaf is not going to cut it to enter heaven.  Children, will you turn from your sins and embrace the promises made to you in your baptism?

Brothers and sisters, children, repentance is not a once off thing.  It is an ongoing expression of our faith throughout this life, in which we renew our allegiance to God and endeavour after new obedience.

May the Lord indeed grant us, his church, the grace to lead a life of ever-deepening repentance and growth in faith.  May we live out the astounding reality that we are already seated with Christ in heaven, even while exiles on this earth; and that we are already recipients of all the treasures of heaven, even while making our way through the wilderness of this life.  This prophetic Word is your ultimate comfort and joy!  This prophetic word is the gospel, which is the good news that we have been changed from sinners into saints, and that we have been made citizens of heaven through the blood of Jesus, our Saviour and Lord.  Amen.

Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, 16 June 2013

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