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“Preparing for the Kingship of Heaven”

Matthew 3:1-17
Bob DeGray
August 25, 2013

Key Sentence

Jesus is God’s provision for all who will recognize their need.


I. Repent – there is no pre-existing merit (Matthew 1:1-10)
II. The Kingdom of Heaven is coming in a person (Matthew 1:11-12)
III. Jesus is the first to bear the fruit of repentance (Matthew 1:13-17)


As I have gotten into filming stock footage for music videos and other purposes, I’ve coined a phrase: it’s not a movie unless something moves. As a result one of my favorite subjects has become water in all its natural forms, from streams to rivers to oceans. Because water almost always moves; often beautifully.

The Bible calls this living water or flowing water, and the opposite is stagnant water. Living water is usually pure and clean; stagnant water is usually dirty; it often stinks. A lake with no outlet that becomes stagnant or salty. A lake with no inlet runs dry. If you provide a source and outlet so the lake flows, it becomes clean. Flowing water cleanses.

And it’s the same in our lives. We are naturally selfish and closed in, concerned only with ourselves. As a result we become stagnant and putrid – that is, sinful. But if we turn from our sin to the source of living water we can be cleansed of our sin, made pure and righteous. Baptism pictures that. This morning we’ll talk about the baptism of John the Baptist. And as we see throughout Scripture we’ll see here, that Jesus is God’s provision for all those who recognize their need. He is God’s provision for all who will turn from self to faith, will receive the righteousness Jesus provides and the living water of his Holy Spirit.

So let’s read about the ministry of the one who announces the ministry of Jesus, John the Baptist, beginning with Matthew 3:1-10 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3For 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.’” 4Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But 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? 8Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9And 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. 10Even 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.

Between the end of Matthew 2 and the beginning of Matthew 3, roughly 27 years pass. We don’t know this from Matthew himself, but Luke tells us that Jesus began his ministry when he was about thirty. The ministry of John the Baptist, appears to have started six months or a year before that of Jesus. And he made a huge impression on the nation. He seems to have appeared suddenly and gained notice quickly, though he was preaching in the sparsely populated wilderness of Judea, in the lower Jordan valley north of the Dead Sea.

John’s message is simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In Greek the word ‘metanoeo’ is often explained as ‘to change one's mind,’ but the New Testament meaning is more akin to that of two Hebrew verbs: naham, to be sorry for one's actions, and shuv, to turn around to new actions. Repentance is not merely changing your mind, nor merely grief, but a radical transformation of the entire person, a fundamental turnaround involving heart mind and will.

Of course, all this assumes that people’s actions are fundamentally off course and need radical change. But many of us don’t want to admit that that sin is universal and serious, that none deserve life. Whether it is lying to a co-worker to make yourself look better, raging in anger at your spouse or your sibling, pursuing sexual gratification where God says it’s too dangerous, cheating on your taxes, indulging soul killing alcohol or drugs, spite, envy, bitterness toward those you think have hurt you, laziness, or self-centeredness in any of its other myriad forms, all have sinned. We fall short of the glory of God because we cannot give ourselves over to loving God and loving others.

This is the core problem Matthew sees answered in Jesus. He has already recorded the angel’s message to Joseph: Jesus will save his people from their sins. He’s also emphasized that Jesus comes as Messiah King, to rescue and reign. But you can’t be rescued unless you recognize your need. This is the first impulse of repentance: to turn from the path that leads to death, from the stagnancy of self-centeredness, from an unloving hard heartedness toward God and others.

This is John’s plea. And it’s mine. I cry out to God about myself, that he would let me see my selfishness and turn from it. And I cry out to God for others, that all of us here, and all of our loved ones and our friends would be able to see our hard-heartedness and the hurt it causes and to grieve over it and loathe it and long for anything other than that guilt and shame.

But repenting is not just a turning from, it’s a turning to, and this Gospel of Matthew is about the one we are called to turn to. John the Baptist baptizes people into an expectancy of Jesus, one who would come to rescue them from sin and reign in them. We’ll see that in this chapter, in every chapter of Matthew: Jesus is the one revealed, the one we want to get close to.

So John’s message is repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Throughout the Old Testament there was a rising expectation of a divine visitation that would establish justice, crush opposition, and renew the universe. God promised to come and reign. In Scripture a kingdom is only rarely a place: far more often it is the reign of a person. It is not static but dynamic, not stagnant but flowing.

Matthew usually uses the phrase “kingdom of Heaven” where the other Gospels use “kingdom of God.” He clearly doesn’t do this to restrict God’s reign to some heavenly or spiritual realm, for Jesus tells us later God’s is in heaven and on earth. The most likely reason he uses this phrase as opposed to the other is simply because he was writing to both believing and unbelieving Jews, and in the first century Jews didn’t speak God’s name, Yahweh. In fact they were so sensitive they would not even use the common noun God for God; they substituted other phrases like ‘the most high’ or ‘heaven.’

But now, John says, the kingdom of Heaven ‘is near.’ Jesus says it too. In fact he says in chapter 12 that it ‘has come.’ The age of God's saving sovereign reign has dawned. Matthew will affirm that the kingdom came with Jesus and his preaching and miracles, that it came with his death and resurrection, and that it will come at the end of the age. The kingdom is both now and not yet, something that has come but is yet fully realized.

John’s message, Matthew says, fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” The grammar of this verse always intrigues me. The best Hebrew texts say “In the desert prepare the way of the Lord,” while the Greek says “Someone is shouting in the desert.” But John both cries in the wilderness, and in that same wilderness he helps prepare the way, through repentance, for Jesus. And don’t miss the fact that in Isaiah it is the Lord’s way that is being prepared, but John is preparing the way for Jesus. This sort of identification of Jesus with Yahweh is common in the New Testament, and it strongly implies Christ’s deity.

In verse 4 John is depicted as a prophet, with clothes of camel's hair and a leather belt. He’s like Elijah, whom the Jews expected to come back, based on the last verses of Malachi. Even in Zechariah's day some false prophets dressed like Elijah to deceive people. But John was the real deal. Like Elijah his ministry was stern and his austere garb and diet confirmed his message.

John's impact was enormous and his crowds came from a wide area. His message struck a responsive note with all kinds of people. Part of this was certainly excitement about his announcement of a kingdom. But given his call to repent, some of the response must have come from deep heart conviction, the work of God in the lives of his people as he prepared to reveal their rescuing king.

So the crowds came and were baptized in the Jordan, which is a small but flowing river most of the year. The people were baptized, confessing their sins. Matthew implies, but does not say that this confession was for the forgiveness of sins. What he doesn’t imply is that baptism is the mechanism of forgiveness. Baptism is a response to a forgiveness offered by God for those who believe his promises, even in the Old Testament. The reason he is able to forgive was still being revealed, in Christ. Matthew already told us that the angel said ‘he will save his people from their sins.” If sin is the universal problem and repentance is turning from it, then John’s baptism is the external evidence of that turning, but Jesus and only Jesus is the answer to the problem.

In verse 7 Matthew reports that both Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to this baptism. These groups were antagonistic toward each other, but both would have a keen interest in a voice that promised the long awaited kingdom of God. But from what we know of them, they may have only come out to listen and criticize, as they did when Jesus taught. Even if they came to be baptized, they did not receive a warm reception from John. With words that sound just like an Old Testament prophet, John says “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”

John has discerned that their hearts are not truly repentant. So he adds “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.’ This is an important moment in this text. In those days many of the Jews, especially their leaders, believed that descent from Abraham was enough for God, that the merits of the patriarchs would cover over the sins of their descendants. But for those who will see, it is clear in Scripture that God did not choose Israel based on merit but by grace. But there is no pre-exiting merit and no way to earn merit.

Don’t miss this. There are many reasons people do not respond the Gospel: pride, rebellion, entrenched sin. But one that is too common is that we think we are already, at least if we try, good enough to go to heaven. Many think, ‘Well, I’m not perfect; I regret a few bad things. But I’ve done good things too, and I think the good will outweigh the bad and I’ll go to heaven.’ This belief is common to almost all world religions and to the average man on the street.

This is just wrong. Don’t presume to say to yourself today ‘I’ve got some merit that will get me the inside track. I don’t really have anything significant to repent about. I’m OK.’ You are not OK. I’m not OK. God does not weigh sin on a scale. God sees sin as rebellion and separates himself from it. God judges sin.

But He also saves by grace, and the beautiful thing is John knows it: “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” It doesn’t take lineage; it doesn’t take merit. You can have all the merit of a rock and God can make you into his child. That’s what he does for all who believe. Paul says to the Galatians: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.”

In verse 10 John reminds his hearers that the future holds not only grace, not only repentance, but also judgment. God has taken his ax out of the woodshed and laid it at the root of the trees that do not bear the fruit of repentance, and he will take that ax up and cut those trees down and throw them into the fire.

So John is calling people to repent, to turn from sin and turn toward salvation, because the kingdom of heaven is at hand: it is now and not yet and no pre-existing or earned merit on our part that qualifies us to enter that kingdom and escape judgment.

But all that is only part of John’s ministry. The more important part was to point to Jesus, the one who could rescue. Verses 11-12: “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. 12His 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.”

John is the forerunner, the one who goes ahead of Jesus to prepare the way. As such he baptizes only with water. Jesus and his disciples also baptized with water, and at his command, so do we. But only Jesus can baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John’s baptism was, and ours is, merely an external symbol of an inward reality. Jesus’ baptism creates that internal reality.

No wonder John says “I am here to point to one who is coming after me, one whose sandals I’m not even worthy to carry.” John is making himself the lowest of servants, those who attended the dirty feet of their masters and their guests. In the Gospel of John, he says “He – Jesus - must increase, but I must decrease.”

And this wasn’t just humility. He also recognized that Jesus would solve the problem of sin that John only helped people to identify: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Ezekiel and others teach this: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Only the one John pointed to could achieve this Spirit baptism of purified hearts.

Some see the reference to Spirit and fire as two baptisms, one by the Holy Spirit for the righteous and one by fire for the unrepentant. Certainly there is a fire of judgment, even in this section. But there are good reasons for taking this ‘fire’ as purifying. Fire is often purifying in the Old Testament. Malachi says of the Messiah “He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.” The one whose way John prepares will administer a Spirit-fire baptism that purifies and refines those who turn to him.

Verse 12 adds that the Messiah's coming will separate grain from chaff. When the winnowing fork tossed both into the air, the wind blew the chaff away, and the heavier grain fell to the ground to be gathered. Then the scattered chaff was swept up and burned. And the "unquenchable fire" is not just a metaphor: a fearful reality underlies the Messiah's separation of grain from chaff.

John’s ministry points to Jesus; the kingdom is near because the one whose sandals John wasn’t worthy to carry was near. Repentance was needed because all must from themselves to the King. The Kingdom was coming in a person, in the Kingship of Jesus who would rescue and save and empower and judge.

Verses 13 to 17 add one more key thought to this picture. When Jesus is baptized, we see that he receives the full fruit of repentance, the fruit of righteousness. Verse 13: Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And 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; 17and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus comes from Galilee to John with the specific purpose of being baptized. But John is reluctant. He tries to deter Jesus, insisting that it was he who needed to be baptized by Jesus. It’s possible John already recognizes Jesus as Messiah and wants to receive Jesus' inward baptism. But Matthew never picks up this theme, either Spirit or fire, in this Gospel. And John’s Gospel tells us that he didn’t recognize Jesus as Messiah until the Spirit descended.

So why did he object? It may be that he recognized this man, to whom he was related, and whom he probably knew, as already righteous. Conscious of his own sin, John could detect no sin Jesus needed to confess and repent from. Matthew doesn’t tell us when John did recognize Jesus as Messiah, but it must have been only moments later, when the Spirit descended from heaven.

But John consents when Jesus tells him “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What does this mean? Jesus can’t mean that he’s a sinner who needs forgiveness. The testimony of Scripture rules that out. But repentance is more than turning from sin. It is also turning to God in dependence. Righteousness is more than forsaking sin: it is positively serving and obeying God. And these Jesus must do. He has come to do his Father’s will, and trust him. Satan will tempt him to disobey. So it makes sense for him to give this visible symbol of turning to God in entire dependence.

Verses 16 and 17 show God’s response: “When Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17and a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

When Jesus came up from the water, he saw heaven opened. Others may have seen it too, but Matthew emphasizes Jesus. Several Old Testament visions begin with the heavens being opened, so this is a familiar image. But then the Spirit of God descends in the form of a dove. This imagery has no Old Testament precursor, but represents a new metaphor for the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Next, a voice speaks from heaven. The phrase “this is my son” assumes that someone besides Jesus heard Heaven’s witness: God was pointing John the Baptist and probably the crowd toward Jesus. The words reflect Isaiah 42:1: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit upon him"; and this has been modified by Psalm 2:7: "You are my Son." So Jesus is being identified as both the suffering servant of Isaiah and the Son of God. And he is the beloved Son, a term implying both affection and selection – Jesus has been chosen by the Father for the tasks set before him. And don’t miss that the triune God shows up here. Each person of the Trinity is playing an explicit role at this moment, and the roles they play are uniquely their own. The Father speaks, the Spirit indwells, and the Son receives.

But I want to close with the recognition that Jesus, as he turns to the Father, receives the same fruit of repentance or fruit of righteousness that we receive when we turn from sin to Jesus in faith. The fruit of repentance in our lives is not in the first instance, the ability to walk righteously, avoid sin or perfect obedience. Those are secondary. The fruit is what Jesus received here: the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the pleasure of the Father. Jesus was never really separated from those things, but they were made visible and audible at his baptism. We are separated from those things by sin until we believe. At that moment we are declared righteous through his work on the cross, and we receive the Holy Spirit who empowers us to live in righteousness.

We’ve already quoted from Ezekiel 36, but notice the sequence “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh; I will put my spirit in you and then I will cause you to walk in my statues and obey my rules.” The lived out righteousness is a result of the work of God in our lives, the presence of the Spirit in our lives. This is the fruit of repentance, the baptism of the Spirit that John spoke of.

But even more astounding to me is that just as Jesus the Son received the pleasure of God the Father at his baptism, “this is my beloved Son, with him I am well pleased,” so we receive the pleasure and intimacy of God when we repent and believe. Prior to faith, our sins separated us from God. But now through the sacrifice of the suffering servant, we receive a right relationship with God. He delights in us as he does in his own son. So the Apostle John rejoices, saying “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God.” And Paul says ‘therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

Just as the Spirit was poured out on righteous Jesus at his baptism, so all of us made righteous by faith in Him receive the same Spirit. Thank you Holy Spirit for consenting to live within us. And just as righteous Jesus was pleasing to his Father, so we are made pleasing to the Father and able to enter his presence without fault and with great joy through the righteousness of His Son. Thank You Father; Thank You Jesus. Amen.