Matthew chapter 3. I remember a young person asking me one time when I was at a Bible conference up at Hume Lake; he said, "Mr. MacArthur, what makes somebody great? What makes somebody great?" And I really didn't have a good biblical answer, so I began to think about it, and I began to think about the fact that, in the world's eyes, there are several things that make you, quote, “great.” One would be being born into the right family. If you happen to be related to the right people, you're automatically thrust in the public eye and, and given a certain measure of greatness, just because you're the son of or the daughter of somebody famous or somebody wealthy or somebody important; so family can make you great in the world's judgment.
Another thing is money. If you have a lotta money, the world tends to think of you as a great person. Another thing is education. If you've got a lot of knowledge, if you've got a string of degrees after your name, or you have the privilege of teaching in a very prestigious position, or you're the author of some very influential books or whatever, then people think of you as having some measure of greatness relative to just how far-reaching your influence. And then, of course, we could say, just in general, success. If you're successful, people most of all think of you as great.
Now, if we look at that as criteria, if we say that born into a special family is part and parcel of greatness, having money, having education, and being highly successful, we would have to conclude, as a result of that, that by the world's standards, Jesus was not great. Right? He was born into a very ordinary family. His father - his father by, not by birth, but by adoption, really - Joseph was nothing more than a carpenter. He had no money. In fact, He said, "The foxes have holes. The birds of the air have nests, and the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." He had no education insofar as formal education is concerned; and in the measure of most men, He was not a success at all, because He never founded a school. He never built a building. He never started an organization, and He died crucified as a common criminal.
So the result of my thinking along that line must be that God has a different standard than man does, because by man's standard, even Jesus doesn't qualify to be called great. And as I looked a little further in the Word of God, I found that there is a biblical portrait of a man who was the greatest man who ever lived up until his time; and that is the man that we want to examine tonight. God has given us in Scripture the portrait of the greatest man. This man is greater than Moses, greater than Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Joseph. This man is greater than David, greater than Solomon, greater than Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Daniel. Greater than Elijah or Elisha. Greater than any of the kings in the history of Israel, including such great and godly men as Hezekiah, Josiah. This is the greatest man who ever lived up until his time.
And he, too, was born into a common family. His father was a priest, and that was a common thing. There were 24 courses of priests in the land, and they only served minimally each year when their particular course had the right to go to the temple and function as priests, and the rest of the time they were ordinary folks. He had no money. As far as we can tell, he lived like a hermit, like an outcast in the wilderness. He had no formal education, and as men count success, he had none that he could speak of. And yet in Matthew chapter 3, we are introduced to the greatest man who ever lived. Now, the things that made him great we're gonna see; before we're finished this study can also be transmitted to our own lives.
Now let me set the scene for you. Matthew is presenting Jesus as King. That's his intention; and, in so doing, everything sort of focuses on that reality. In chapter 1, Matthew presented Jesus as King by virtue of His birth. He showed us the royal character of Jesus' birth. In Matthew chapter 2, he presented Him as King by virtue of the circumstances that surrounded His birth. For example, the homage of the magi. They acknowledge Him as King. The hatred of Herod. That, too, was an acknowledging that He was a king and a threat to Herod's own throne; and then the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophetic Word. The Old Testament prophesies that pointed to the King in specifics were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Now, Matthew has one other approach here in the beginning of his gospel to show us that He was a king; and his approach is this: He is a King as indicated by the fact that God sent a king's herald to announce his arrival. The fact that John is the herald of the King is evidence that Jesus, in fact, is a king. So Matthew introduces us to the herald of the King, who also happens to be the greatest man who ever lived up until his time.
Now, if you'll notice the first six verses, which is what we wanna talk about tonight, you'll see that John is presented here, John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer - either one is correct. He is presented as the forerunner of Jesus. He prepared the way for Jesus' arrival. The whole passage emphasizes this. In ancient times, it was common when a king was coming to a city to send ahead of him certain servants, certain heralds, and they had two functions. One of the functions was to announce the king was coming. The other function was to prepare the road so that the travel would be easy. So usually the herald would go ahead with the idea of verbalizing the arrival of the king, and also with a coterie of servants who could fix the road. And since roads in those days were subject to all kinds of pitfalls and hazards and, and broken places, and so forth and so on, this was very important that the king not be delayed, that the king not be injured as he traveled because something was not foreseen. And so a herald went to proclaim and to prepare, to announce the king is coming, and to get the road ready for when the king came by.
Now, you'll notice that this was what John did. It says in verse 1, "He came preaching," and the Greek word there is “to herald,” “to announce,” “to proclaim,” kerusso. We'll talk more about that in a moment. Also, it's interesting that it says, "In those days came John," and the verb “came” there is literally used in the Greek to speak of the arrival of an official. The arrival of an official. John was an official herald announcing the arrival of a king; and you know his message in verse 2? "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." And “at hand” means it's imminent, it's the next thing.
And, obviously, verse 3 also says, "He was the voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord.'" So he was a herald, and he was a way preparer. He was calling the people to work on the path to get it ready for the King to arrive. So to John was given the role of being the herald of the King, announcing the King's arrival and making sure the people made the preparations so that the path was smooth. This was a customary oriental thing, and John was called to do it. Only in his case, he was heralding the King of kings; and in his case, he wasn't asking people to prepare a dirt road. He was asking them to prepare the road into their hearts, that the King might enter there. That was his purpose.
Now, let's look at the text and see some of the features about John. Number one, the man. The man. We'll look at several things. The man, verse 1, "In those days came John the Baptist, heralding in the wilderness of Judea." Stop right there. "In those days" - What does that mean? What days? Well, man alive, it's a big gap between the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3, right? At the end of chapter 2, they have just arrived in Nazareth, and Jesus is still a little tiny child under a year old. And now, all of a sudden, “in those days,” John the Baptist is announcing the King is coming. So somewhere around 29 or 30 years elapsed between the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3, and Matthew totally skips over those periods. There's only, in fact, one gospel that even mentions any event in those entire 30 years, and that's Luke; and Luke in chapter 2 discusses from verse 41 and following, one incident out of those 30 years, and that was the incident where Jesus went with His parents to the Passover. Remember that?
But apart from that, these are the silent years. We know nothing about Him, except what Luke says in that time when he was 12 years old; and he was asking questions of the doctors in the temple; and he said He must be about His Father's business. And Luke says He grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man - growing years. And now, all of a sudden, “in those days,” and that means the days in which He was living in Nazareth - the days in which He was a Nazarene. The days in which He dwelt, verse 23, in a city called Nazareth. “During those days” - that historical time – “came,” and by the way, as I said, the word “came” is a verb that means “an official presentation,” “an official individual.” The word is used several times to indicate the arrival of a public appearance of an official person, as a very official character. In fact, verse 13 of 3; look at it. "Then cometh Jesus." Matthew, again, uses the same word - a word that speaks of a very official arrival, not just an ordinary individual, but someone of stature, significance, and importance.
Now this signals - now mark this - this signals the beginning of the official ministry of Jesus Christ. For 30 years Jesus has been living in relative obscurity; but with the arrival of John is the announcement that triggers the beginning of Jesus' official ministry. John is the herald who says, "Now it is the time for Christ to commence His ministry." In fact, in Acts 10:37 it says that, "That Word, I say, you know, which was published throughout all Judea, and” – listen – “began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached." In other words, the gospel of peace by Jesus Christ began from Galilee after John's preaching. So Acts 10 tells us that when John began to herald, Jesus began to minister. He was the official herald of the King; and, by the way, John the Baptist was Jesus' cousin. Do you remember that? He was Jesus' cousin, and he was six months older than Jesus, Luke 1:26 and 36 tell us. And at this crucial moment in history, he steps onto the stage.
Now, look at his name, “John.” Great name. Just - fantastic name - John means “Jehovah graciously gave,” and don't you ever forget it. Some have said it means “God's gracious gift,” and that's right. He was surnamed the Baptizer, the Baptist, not because he belonged to the First Baptist Church of Galilee. There was no such thing. He was given that title because that was an epithet attached to his name because of the fact that that's what he did. That was the unique thing that he did; and before we're done tonight, you're gonna see why it was so unique; and the most obvious characteristic of his work was his baptizing; and that's why people branded him “John the Baptizer.”
Now, this was a special man. I mean this guy was special from the moment he was born. Look at Luke chapter 1. Luke chapter 1, and I wanna show you something in verse 13. This was a special, special person - Zacharias was a priest. He was married to Elizabeth, and they were good people, but they never had any babies because Elizabeth was barren and they were old. Kinda like in an Abraham and a Sarah deal here.
In verse 11, an angel comes. Verse 12, "Zacharias saw the angel. He was troubled, and fear fell on him. And the angel said, 'Fear not, Zacharias, for thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John' - divinely named – ‘and thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord.’" There's the key, isn't it? "He shall be great in the sight of the Lord, shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb." This is an unusual baby.
"Many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. He shall 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 a people prepared for the Lord."
Now look over at verse 76 of Luke 1, and Zacharias, looking at that precious little life says, "‘And thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Highest; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.' And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing to Israel."
What an unusual child, filled with the Spirit from his mother's womb. Great in the sight of the Lord. Turning many to righteousness. Living his entire life in the desert until the right moment when he was to step forth and show himself to the people and herald the arrival of the King. This was an unusual child. In fact, listen to this. Matthew 11:11 says, just listen to it. We'll look at it later. Matthew 11:11 says this: "Among them that are born of women” – and that's everybody – “among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist." Those are the words of Jesus. Matthew 11:11, the greatest man that ever lived up until his time; and I would suggest to you that it's fitting that the great King of kings would have that man to be His herald, isn't it? The greatest man that ever lived.
Now, this great man is the subject of this chapter and another way for Matthew to emphasize that Jesus is the King. Listen, if the greatest man that ever lived is only the herald for the King, then the King must be greater than the greatest man that ever lived, right? John knew his task, also. There was no doubt his whole life that he knew his task. In John's gospel, written by the apostle John, not John the Baptist, in John 1:19, "And this is the witness of John” - now it's talking about John the Baptist – “when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem and said, 'Who are you?'” - they asked him – “and he confessed and denied not, but confessed, 'I am not the Christ.' And they said, 'What then? Are you Elijah?' And he said, 'I am not.' 'Are you that prophet?' And he answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, 'Who are you?'” And this is what he said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as said the prophet Isaiah."
He knew who he was. There was never a doubt. His parents knew it. They told it to him from the time he was a child, and he went out into the desert, and he stayed there. And, listen, the Jewish people knew the Messiah would have a forerunner. They knew the Messiah would have a herald. They knew somebody was gonna come along and announce that the Messiah was coming; and you know who they thought it would be? They thought it would be what prophet? Elijah. In fact, you wanna know something interesting? At every Passover ceremony, every orthodox Jewish Passover ceremony, there is a cup at the table reserved for the prophet Elijah; and at the circumcision of a child, the circumcision of a Jewish child, a chair is placed for Elijah, anticipating that if Elijah would ever come and sit in the chair or drink the cup, that would be the sign that the King was arriving.
Now, what they failed to see was that though John was not actually Elijah - listen to this - John was the fulfillment of the prophecy that Elijah would come. He was the Elijah of the New Testament. Back in Malachi - you gotta get this - back in Malachi – listen – “behold” - looking ahead, the last word of the Old Testament. This is it. The last statement of the whole Old Testament. "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse."
In other words, the prophet Malachi said, the Old Testament closes with this, "The next man on the scene will be Elijah, and he is gonna prepare you for the coming of the King." That's the last word in the Old Testament. "The next person is Elijah, and he will prepare you for the coming King. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children," etc., etc.
You say, "How do you know John fulfilled that?" Luke 1:17, I just read it to you. "He shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children." In other words, there is Malachi 4:5 quoted again; and the Elijah that is being referred to is none other than John the Baptist. He is the Elijah.
Now, look at Matthew 17:10. Let me show you one other thing that'll really, really solidify this in your mind. Matthew 17:10, the people knew, they knew that this forerunner was gonna come, and they thought it would be Elijah, because they knew the last of Malachi. Verse 10, His disciples asked Him, asked Jesus, "'Why then say the scribes that Elijah must come first?' And Jesus answered and said unto them, 'Elijah truly shall first come and restore all things.'" In other words, Elijah'll get everything ready for the kingdom. "But I say” - now watch - that Elijah is come” - What? – “already." You see, John was the fulfillment. "'And they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they desired. And likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them.' Then the disciples understood that He spoke unto them of” - Whom? – “John the Baptist."
See, he was the fulfillment of that. He wasn't Elijah, but he came in the spirit and power of Elijah and fulfilled the intention of the prophecy. But, you know, something else has to be added. Back up to Matthew 11, and he was that Elijah until they rejected him. Now watch this one. Matthew 11:12, Matthew 11:12, "And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John” - now listen – “and if ye will receive him” – implied – “this is Elijah, who was to come." Now listen to me. What Jesus says is this, "John will be this Elijah if” - What? – “you receive him." And what did they do? They didn't received him. In fact, what happened to John? They beheaded him.
You know what? When they did that to John, they stopped the fulfillment of that prophecy and another Elijah, another one in the spirit and power of Elijah, will have to come in the future to get the people ready for the kingdom that is yet in the future. John would have been that Elijah. That's what it says in verse 14, "If you will receive him, this is Elijah who was to come." But they didn't, and so there is an Elijah yet to come in the future. Some say that that Elijah of the future is one of the two witnesses of Revelation chapter 11. I don't know who those witnesses are. Perhaps one of them is Elijah. Perhaps, and I don't mean literally Elijah, I mean one in the spirit and power of Elijah as John the Baptist was when he came.
Now, you can see from what I'm trying to show you, this is a significant man. He came to get the people ready for the King. Now you know what happened. He came to get 'em ready for the King. The King came to offer them the kingdom. They didn't want the forerunner. They beheaded him. They didn't want the King. They crucified Him. The whole thing fell apart. Israel was set aside, and it's all gotta be redone in the future, right? And the kingdom was postponed, and there's gotta be another forerunner to get Israel ready again for the coming kingdom.
Everything about this man was startling. Everything about this man was unique. Everything about him, his sudden appearance, his lifestyle, his preaching, his baptizing, even his birth was incredible. He was born to people who were barren. He was born to be a, to be a priest by heritage, but he turned out to be a prophet. He turned his back on his father's world, for his heavenly Father's will, and after spending his lifetime in the desert until the right moment, God spoke to his heart and he began to thunder out the message that God had given him in the desert and begin to announce, "The King is coming."
You would've thought, if I'd have been planning it, I'd have said, "Look, if this guy is the forerunner of the Messiah, let's get him in the big cities. Let's get him up on the rooftops. Let's get him yelling where the folks are. Let's not have the guy out there in the boondocks all by himself; and let's not have him dressed like somebody in a sideshow, so everybody thinks he's some kind of a freak. Let's get him there where he can really influence." But that isn't the way God did it. He spent his whole life out there in the unlikely parish that God gave him was the wilderness of Judea.
I can tell you a little about the wilderness of Judea. I've been there a few times. When you wanna talk about wilderness, that is wilderness. It's the south end of the Jordan Valley, around the north part of the Dead Sea, and I mean you talk about bleak, that is bleak. That is arid, bleak, dry land extending - you go from Jerusalem down that plateau and all that area in the south there, south part of the Jordan Valley, is just arid, rolling badlands. Desolation.
It was there that John spent his life, and I think there was something symbolic in it. You see, because John was calling people away from the system. John was calling 'em away from the hypocrisy of their religiosity. Away from the phoniness of their temple worship. Away from all of the luxury and the involvement in the system, and calling them out to a desolate spot where they could begin to focus on the desolate, arid qualities of their own hearts. He wanted 'em away where they were freer to think and hear and forget, where they didn't have the influences of all those around them, and all the things they had become so comfortable with. They had to leave the system. They had to leave the city of Jerusalem. They had to leave the temple. They had to go way out in the boondocks - way out in desolation - to meet the man, the greatest man that ever lived.
Now let's talk about his message. When they got there, what did they hear? It's a short message – a quality that not all preachers possess. Verse 2, he was preaching, and in his preaching he was saying, "Repent, repent." That was his message, okay? By the way, the word “preaching,” I wanna talk about a minute in verse 1. Kerusso, the noun form is kērux or kērux, and it means “a herald.” Literally, “one who with a loud voice announces the arrival of a king” - a herald. And so he was heralding. He was heralding, and what was he heralding? "Repent!" That was the message. "This kind of King demands that you repent." In other words, He wants you to worship Him, but you can't worship Him legitimately until you get sin out of the way. You can't come to Jesus Christ and just worship Him first. First, you've gotta deal with your sin. That's what he was saying.
He was saying to Israel, "Look, you just can't accept the King and begin to worship the King. You've gotta get rid of your sin." In fact, it's the identical message that Jesus preached when He came. Matthew 4:17, "From that time Jesus began to preach.” And what did He say? “Repent.” Same sermon. Jesus and John preached the same sermon. The word “repent,” metanoeo, means more than just sorrow. We think of repentance, and we say, "Oh, he's so repentant. He's weepy, and he's sorrowful." That isn't what the word means in the Greek. It means “to turn around.” It means “to be converted.” It means a change of opinion. A change of purpose. A change of direction. A change of mind. A change of will. A change from sin to holiness.
Broadus, who has written a classic commentary on Matthew, says, "Wherever this Greek word is used in the New Testament, the reference is to changing the mind and the purpose from sin to holiness. It implies sorrow for sin, but that's not what it means. It means to turn around." It is 2 Corinthians 7 that talks about godly repentance, godly sorrow, that turns you around, and that's what John was saying. He wasn't just saying, "I want you to feel sorry for your sin." He was saying, "I want you to change from sin to holiness. You will never have the kingdom. You will never have the King until you turn around." The message really could be better translated, "Get converted. Get converted."
Well, listen, people, can you imagine what kinda message that must've been to them? "The King is coming, and everything'll be all right if you'll just turn around 180 degrees. You totally change your lifestyle, and you can have the King." What a jolt for the Jews who thought that they were the favored of God. It's kinda like Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus to ask Him a theological question, and Jesus looked him in the eye and said, "You know what your problem is? Not that you need to add a few more good works. You need to be born all over again. Nicodemus, you gotta start from scratch. Everything you've added up so far is zilch." Huh?
Well, imagine John the Baptist saying, "The King is coming. Now He just wants one thing out of you, and that's total conversion. Turn completely around from what you are." What a shock. Certainly a change accompanied by deep sorrow, a change accompanied by sorrow for past sin, but a change that went from sin to holiness, a conversion that affected the mind and the will and the emotions. So in the original, the word used by John the Baptist is a radical change, a radical turnaround, a radical transformation of mind and heart, a complete conversion - that's what John asked for. That's what Jesus asked for. You get into the book of Acts, and that's the same thing Peter said, "Repent and be baptized." You gotta turn all around.
People say, "Do you believe in, that you need to be, you need to repent to be saved?" Of course. That's being saved. You gotta turn around. You gotta say no to sin and yes to holiness. No to sin and yes to Christ. So he had a simple message. Wasn't a complex theology, didn't have to pass out mimeographed sheets to explain it, didn't have to use the overhead, didn't start a new cult, didn't have to enroll in ten courses. He thundered out one word, "Get converted!” “Turn around!” “Say no to sin and yes to holiness!” And, man alive, this was a jolt. This was a shock, because he was challenging the prevailing Jewish belief that they were already saved. That they were already righteous. They were the seed of Abraham. They were the people of God. They were ones in the covenant. They were the chosen; and he says, "The only problem with you is you gotta turn all the way around." Boy, that was a shocker.
And look at verse 8 of chapter 3. We'll get to this next time. "Bring forth therefore fruits befitting repentance, and think not to say within yourself, 'Well, we have Abraham as our father.'” Are you kiddin’ us, J.B.? We are the sons of Abraham. Have you forgotten? Have you forgotten that we're the children of Abraham? Have you forgotten that we're the sons of the promise, the sons of the covenant? What's this converted stuff?" And John says, "Listen, God is able to take rocks and make children of Abraham. That's no big deal."
"And now also the ax is laid at the root of the tree; therefore, every tree that doesn't bring forth good fruit is gonna be cut down and thrown in the fire." John says, "I don't care what you say about your heritage. If God wanted children of Abraham, He could make 'em outta stones, and what's gonna really happen is God's gonna come in judgment; and if He looks at you and doesn't see the fruit of repentance, the ax is gonna fall at the base of the tree." I mean this is hot stuff. You're really hitting 'em right where they hurt.
So the message was clear. Didn't matter that they were the children of Abraham. It didn't matter that they had been given the promises and the covenants. It didn't matter that they were in the land that God had given His people. It didn't matter, because they were sinful, and they needed to turn around. In fact, in effect, you know what he's saying? "You're in the same boat that any Gentile's in. You have no right to the kingdom until you get converted, till you turn from sin to holiness." Personal conversion. So the man and the message.
Thirdly, the motive. Why should they do this? Why should they get converted? Why should they turn around? He says, "For the kingdom of heaven is at hand." The reason? "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." The long expected Messianic reign was near, and the people had to get ready. If they were gonna have the King and be in His kingdom, they had to be ready; and, at this point, they were not ready.
Now, imagine, it's been 400 years since they heard any prophet speak to them. A long succession of prophets filled their history, and then at the end of the Old Testament era, God was silent and, after Malachi, 400 years of silence. God didn't break the silence. There was a time where there was no voice nor any that answered, and now all of a sudden the silence is shattered, and they think the silence will be shattered by, "Here's the King, hosanna, joy, happiness, let's all go in the kingdom!" But something's wrong because the silence is shattered by this living prophet heralding the coming King; but he doesn't have a message of joy; and he doesn't have a message of peace; and he doesn't have a message of comfort. He has a message of fiery wrath and judgment; and he says He's gonna baptize you with fire, at the end of verse 11, and in verse 12, "His fan is in His hand. He's gonna purge His floor. He's gonna gather His wheat into the granary; and He's gonna burn the chaff with unquenchable fire."
I mean this was really some message. The message was shocking, unacceptable. No wonder they beheaded the guy. Shoulda been good news about the King and the kingdom, but they had to get the bad news first. The bad news was they weren't ready, 'cause they were sinful, and they had to be converted. It meant, you see, that the children of Abraham, sons of the covenant, sons of the promises, circumcised, people of the King had absolutely no right to enter the kingdom. That's a shock. No right. No more right than a Gentile. And, you see, for the Jew he felt that, man, salvation was for him and him alone and a few proselytes who got in on it. And then when Messiah came, He'd just kill all the Gentiles; and all the Jews would go waltzing into the kingdom.
John broke loose from the traditional beliefs. I think one of the reasons God kept Him in the desert for 30 years is so he wouldn't get cluttered up with bad theology that was in existence in his time. The man was so pure and so uncluttered in his mind, because God had given him His message, and it was uncluttered. So he came preaching, "The kingdom is at hand. If you're gonna be a part of it, you gotta get converted." God, in a sense - this might be a good way to see it, because of Israel's sin - had excommunicated the entire nation from the kingdom; and now he would reintroduce them back into the kingdom, one at a time, on the basis of personal conversion. They were all outsiders.
Now, we need to discuss for just a brief moment the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom of heaven? What does John mean by it? Well, basically, it's an Old Testament concept. The precise phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” is not found in the Old Testament; but it is an Old Testament concept. This is why I say that. Nebuchadnezzar, for instance, in Daniel 4:37, refers to God as “the king of heaven.” Daniel 2:44 calls Him “the God of heaven”; and Daniel 4:25 says, "He will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed." Now, the God of heaven, the King of heaven, God and heaven are then associated. The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God then are associated terms.
Now, Matthew uses the term “kingdom of heaven” 32 times; and he is the only gospel writer that ever uses it. Mark doesn't use it. Luke doesn't use it. John doesn't use it. They use “the kingdom of God,” and there may be a special reason for that. As I tried to point out from Daniel, and there are many other illustrations, heaven and God were thought of as synonymous. God was the King of heaven; and the reason Matthew may use it is because Matthew's gospel is a characteristically Jewish gospel; and one thing about Jews that you learn historically as you study Judaism is that a Jew would never say the name of God; and in deference to that, they would substitute frequently the term “heaven.” We even say things like that today. We say, "Heaven smiled down on me." We mean God. We use it in a synonym fashion; and it may be that Matthew is in some sense accommodating a current substitute by calling the “kingdom of heaven” that rather than the “kingdom of God,” so that there is not an overt offense. That's one possibility.
Personally, I don't see any great distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. As you study it throughout the gospels, they seem to be parallels. In fact, if we had the time, and we don't tonight, I could take you through passages in Matthew and Mark and Luke, all recording the same incident where one time Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven,” Mark uses “kingdom of God,” and Luke uses “kingdom of God,” interchangeably, identical terms. And so I don't think there's any reason to build a huge case that they're different. He was simply saying, "The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom Messiah is gonna rule, is coming."
Now, we go a step further, okay? The kingdom of heaven has two aspects. Two aspects - the outer and the inner, and sometimes, in the gospels, the outer is in view, and sometimes the inner is in view. Let me show you what I mean. In the broadest sense, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, includes - watch this - everybody who professes to acknowledge God. Now, in Matthew 13 we'll see that, that the kingdom of heaven's got in it wheat and what? Tares, right? That the kingdom of heaven is like a great big bush with birds in it; and you've got the true and the false, the real and the non-real.
So in the outer sense, the kingdom of heaven is, is everybody that professes; but in the inner sense, it's only the really regenerated, born-again, genuinely saved people; and in some passages, the inner is in view; and in some, the outer; and we'll see that as we go through Matthew. The big circle of profession includes the true and the false. The little circle only those truly born again in Christ.
Now, tracing the kingdom will help us a little bit. Let me give you a quick little historical look at the kingdom. We’re gonna go flying by, so hang on. There are five distinct phases in the kingdom. Five phases. I, I tried to reduce a very difficult subject to simple terms so I could understand it and pass it on to you simply.
First of all, it's talking about the rule of God. The rule of God over the hearts of men and over the world. Both are included. Now, the first phase of this thing is the prophesied kingdom, the prophesied kingdom. For example, Daniel said that God is gonna come and set up a kingdom, a kingdom that'll never be destroyed; and Daniel foresaw that Christ would be the King of that kingdom. It was a prophesied kingdom.
The second thing, the second phase of this is what you could call the present kingdom or the at-hand kingdom; and that was the kingdom described by John the Baptist. He was saying, "The prophesied rule of God is now imminent. It's now ready." Jesus said it. The twelve said it. It's at hand. It's coming. It's imminent. It's near. The rule of God, the reign of Christ, both internally and externally - it's here.
Then the third phase of the kingdom was what I call the interim phase. The prophesied, the imminent or at-hand, and the interim; and, there, the kingdom is described in this way. After the King was rejected by Israel, the King returned to heaven, and the kingdom now exists in a mystery form. Christ isn't literally in the world, literally reigning, literally sitting in Jerusalem ruling the kingdom; but He reigns a kingdom in the hearts of all who acknowledge Him as Lord, right? So it's an interim kingdom, the mystery form. So you have the prophesied, the at-hand, which would've been both earthly and internal, the whole thing; and when they wouldn't accept the King, the kingdom went inside; and now in a mystery form is in the hearts of those who believe. And, as Paul says in Romans 14:17, "The kingdom of God is righteousness and joy and peace in the Holy Spirit." It's internal.
The fourth phase of the kingdom is what I call the manifest phase. You start with the prophesied, the at-hand, the interim, and then the manifest; and this is the literal, thousand-year millennium that is to come. It will involve an external rule where Christ literally rules, physically in the earth, and an internal where He rules the hearts of the believing people.
The book of Revelation talks about this. Jesus, in Matthew 16, gave people a glimpse of this in the transfiguration. So what do you have? You have the prophesied kingdom, the at-hand one, the interim one, the manifest one for a thousand years; and finally what I call the everlasting kingdom. Second Peter 1:11, Peter calls it, "The eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." The fifth and final phase.
Now, that's generally the flow of the kingdom. The Old Testament prophesied a kingdom — a kingdom that would be external, where they would literally be in the earth; and the earth would be the place of the kingdom; and the earth would be ruled by the King; and it would also be internal, the hearts of the believing people would submit to that reign. And John and Jesus and the twelve said it's at hand. But it was rejected, and so an interim, internal kingdom has taken form now that we call this mystery age. But one day the kingdom will be manifest internally and externally, and then that thousand-year kingdom will exist and, at the end of that, an everlasting kingdom.
So John was talking about the at-hand. Now listen to me – had they received John, and had they received Christ, there never would have been the interim - you understand that – there never would have been the mystery church age. They would have gone into the thousand-year manifest kingdom and from there right into the everlasting kingdom, and John would have been that Elijah and it would have all been fulfilled. But when they killed the forerunner and they killed the King, the whole thing was future postponed and in the meantime the mystery kingdom dwells in the hearts of believing people. And Christ may not be reigning in the world, but He’s reigning in my heart, right, and your heart. So John was calling the nation to turn its back on sin, to be converted, to get ready for the kingdom, because the kingdom was coming. The tragedy of it is that they didn't hear his message. They didn't listen. They never received the kingdom, and that whole generation died without the King, died without the kingdom, and went into hell. So the man, the message, and the motive.
Fourthly, the mission. Simply stated, and we've already seen it, he was called to be the herald of Christ, but the mission was laid out long before in the Old Testament prophets. Look at verse 3, "For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'" He fulfilled Isaiah 40, verse 3, "He is the one of whom the prophets spoke.” He is the one who was to come and get things ready, and he was preparing a way. Not a road, not a dirt path, but a way into the hearts of believing people. He was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness."
Oh, that's such a great passage. Isaiah 40, you see, that tells us about the forerunner in 40, verse 3. But in the verses after it tells us why he was getting them ready. Listen to chapter 40 verse 1, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people," and you can't know what an exciting thing that was in chapter 40 'cause they had just had 39 chapters full of judgment; and, boy, here comes this comfort. "Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem. Cry to her. Her warfare is accomplished. Her iniquity is pardoned. She's received from the Lord hands, Lord's hands double for her sins." All that's done, and now comes the voice of him that cries in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God."
Why?! Because the kingdom is coming, and he describes it this way: "Every valley shall be exalted. Every mountain and hill shall be made low. The crooked shall be made straight, and rough places plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." One of the, one of my favorite passages of the Messiah taken from that marvelous text.
You see, John was crying to prepare the people for the kingdom, and Isaiah described the kingdom in 4 and 5. He was fulfilling the prophetic word of Isaiah. "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make his paths straight. Prepare a road into your heart by turning from sin." So his mission was preparation, deep conviction. He wanted to bring to bear on Israel such conviction that they confessed they were unfit, sinners, poor, damned, miserable - he was a judgment preacher. He was a judgment preacher designed by God from way back in the book of Isaiah to confront a wicked, evil nation and get 'em right for the arrival of the King. So he fulfilled prophecy.
Another note from Matthew to help us to see Jesus is the King. Even His herald is a fulfillment of prophecy. The man, the message, the motive, the mission, fifth, the manner; and this is interesting. The manner. The manner of his presentation was really fascinating. His lifestyle was so unique. Verse 4, "And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leather belt about his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey."
Now it must've been a literally convicting, scalding experience to even meet this guy, because here was a man who didn't care at all for the things that people lived for. He was an ascetic. His self-renunciation was a stinging rebuke to the worldliness and luxury of his own day. His appearance was a sermon if he never said a word. You see, camel's hair was very durable, and something woven outta that coarse camel's hair would've been long-lasting and durable, not fashionable by any stretch of imagination. In fact, no doubt a gross thing.
A leather belt? Why leather? Leather lasts longer; and when you're going around in the wilderness, you've gotta have that belt to cinch up the camel's hair cloak. A living illustration to people who made fine garments and fancy clothes their preoccupation. A living illustration to people who made food and drink their preoccupation. His object was not to make people into ascetics. His object was not to make people into hermits. His object was to help them escape from the wrath to come; and standing between them and the wrath to come, in many cases, was their own love of luxury; and he lived as a stinging rebuke by the very way that he appeared. He was an intimidating man.
In fact, if you check 2 Kings, chapter 1, verse 8, you'll find that he probably modeled his clothes after Elijah, because that's the way Elijah dressed. It says, "He was a hairy man, and girded with a belt of leather around his waist." John was a hairy man, and we don't know which, in Elijah's case, whether it was his own hair or a camel's hair, but he, too, had a leather belt. Durability, functional clothes - it said something. Very convicting. The man, by his lifestyle, was a rebuke; and then his diet. Man, you could lose weight on this. Locusts and wild honey. I heard some preacher one time say locusts were a lovely little fruit that grew on a tree. Baloney. Locusts are locusts.
According to Deuteronomy 32:13, you could find honey under the rocks in a lotta places where honey would be made; and honey would be readily found out in that area; and we can understand eating honey, but locusts — dewinged, baked, and salted. Still don't do anything for me.
Leviticus 11:22 indicates that the Lord permitted, and by implication even encouraged, the Israelites to eat four different kinds of insects which, today, we would call locusts. He literally ate bugs, insects. You know, we think that's horrible. Arabs today still eat those same kinda locusts; and if you think that's somethin’, you can go to the fanciest restaurant in L.A., and they'll feed you snails if you want 'em, only they call it escargot, but it's snails. Just step on it, and you'll find out.
So everybody's got their delicacy. The only thing I can't figure out is how you got filled up on 'em. The man's diet was very austere. The man's clothes were austere. You see, he was a living protest against self-indulgence, you see. He literally fractured them by his appearance, as well as what he said. I guess a man or a woman who speaks against the evil of the day oughta live apart from the evil of the day. John did, so we meet the man, the message, the motive, the mission, the manner, finally, the ministry.
You say, "Well, boy, did anybody ever listen to the guy?" Yeah, verse 5, "Then went out to him Jerusalem." Isn't that interesting? You say, "Who?" Jerusalem. They were going out group after group, "And all Judea and all the region round about the Jordan." Undoubtedly, the East Bank and the West Bank and everybody in any area around there were all coming out; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. The guy was believed!
What effect did he have? What was the response to his preaching? How can we evaluate his ministry? There it is. This man had an amazing impact. He called the society to attention. In Matthew 21:26, it says, "For all men hold John as a prophet." It was common belief this was a prophet from God, and they went out. As much of a shock as it was, people came, and they were baptized, and they confessed their sin. Can you imagine it out there? One crowd after another, everywhere, even in Galilee they came.
Now, let me just draw this to a conclusion by mentioning this. The fact that they were baptized is shocking. I'll tell you why. Listen to me. Never — I'll say it again — never in all history had any Jew submitted to being baptized. Okay? This is something new. "Oh," you say, "what about the Levitical washings?" Those were different. The Levitical washings of the hands and the feet and the head and all of that were frequent. There were certain ceremonial bathings among the Essenes, which was a community of the Jews living out in that area; but all of those - listen to this - purification ceremonies were repeated daily and even hourly if you sin. You understand that? These were just ceremonial washings, and every time you suspected another pollution, you did it again.
John's baptism was a one-time, one-shot deal; and Jews never did that. You say, "Why?" Listen to this. Because single baptism was exactly what was required of a Gentile proselyte, who was entering into Judaism. And a Jew who would submit himself to that kind of baptism would be saying, in effect, "I am an outsider seeking entrance into the people of God," and that's quite an admission, isn't it? They were literally indulging themselves in proselyte baptism.
So, they did this; it was really a step. A member of God's chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God's salvation, baptized like a common proselyte? And, yet, that's exactly what John asked of them. He called Israel to realize that their nationality couldn't save 'em. Their race couldn't save 'em. They had to forsake sin. They had to be converted to righteousness. They had to get in the kingdom like everybody else did; and in the East, no act of religion, no act of crisis in religion was ever done in the heart without an external act to go with it. That was part of the culture, and baptism in the Jordan River was the sign of the public confession of sin that had occurred in the heart.
So John was calling for a fundamental transformation that even a Jew had to make. Now, some of these people were hypocritical. Some of them went through it, but they were phony, as we'll find out two weeks from tonight when we get into the fascinating confrontation with the snakes who were also known as Pharisees. But they came confessing their sins. The man had an incredible impact on the entire country. So we meet a striking man, and will you stay with me one more, one more moment? Listen to this. This is the greatest man that ever lived, and I'm gonna tell you something right now. The things that made him great can be applied to us.
Let me show you something. What made him great? What made him great? Number one. I'm gonna give you six, jot 'em down. Number one, made him great, he was obedient to God's Word. From the very beginning of his life, he obeyed. From the very start of his life, he obeyed. He never wavered from the calling that God had given to him. From the time that he was a little child, he obeyed God. That's part of greatness.
Second, he was filled with the Spirit. Luke 1:15 says he "was filled with the Spirit from the time of his mother's womb." He was great because he was obedient. He was great because he was filled with the Spirit of God. He was controlled by the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, he was great because he was self-controlled. Luke 1:15 says he, "drank neither wine nor strong drink." Matthew 3 says that, "His clothes were only what was necessary, and his food the same." The man had self-control. The man had brought his body into subjection. He didn't overdo anything. He never drank wine, and he never drank strong drink. Wine would've been the mixed drink that they drank, like six parts water to one part wine; and he never even drank the strong drink, which would be the straight stuff. He never drank any of it. He disavowed all of it - self-control.
Fourth, he was great not only because of his obedience, because he was Spirit-controlled, because he was self-controlled, but because he was humble. He was humble. The greatest thing he ever said, I think, in this regard was when Jesus finally arrived on the scene, and the disciples who had so fallen in love with John the Baptist were gathered around John, and they said, "And, John, now what? This, this is the Messiah, and He's come, but, but what about you?” And John said in John 3, in verse 30, "He must increase, and I must” - What? – “decrease.” “It's over for me, guys. You go and give your love to Him. I'm not even worthy to unlatch His shoe." Right? That's what he said. Humble.
Fifth, he was great because he proclaimed God's Word. "Behold, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand." You can hear him thundering it out, "He shall turn many of the people to righteousness." That's the sixth. He not only proclaimed God's Word, he won people to Christ. He was obedient, filled with the Spirit, self-controlled, humble, proclaiming God's Word, and winning people to Christ. "He shall turn many of the hearts of the people to righteousness." And he did.
You say, "Oh, boy, but even if I did all that, I'd never be as great as John." Hang onto your seat and listen to this. Matthew 11:11 says, "Verily I say to you, among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist." Now listen to this. "Nevertheless, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." You get that? Shock. Listen, we're in the kingdom; and any of us, the least of us in the kingdom, surpasses the one who foretold its coming. We have all the resources he looked for. We have all the realities he searched for. We have all the blessings he anticipated. We're not greater in terms of character. That isn't what he's saying. We're greater in terms of privilege and opportunity.
It's like Jesus said to His disciples, "Greater things than these shall” - What? – “ye do, because I go to My Father." We can be great for God. The least of us, greater than the greatest who ever lived. That's what it is to be in His kingdom. Are you grateful? Let's pray.
Thank You, Father, for such a great, great lesson. I wanna be great, not as the world measures it. I wanna be great in the sight of the Lord; and I know these folks do, too. So I wanna be obedient to the Word, filled with the Spirit, self-controlled, humble, proclaiming the Word, and winning many to Christ. I thank You that You've given to me a greater privilege than You even gave John. That all the things he looked for and announced, I can experience, because I'm in the kingdom, as the King rules my life. O, Father, make us great that we, too, can turn many to righteousness. For Your glory, we pray in Jesus' name. Amen.