The message of the coming kingdom requires a response. It requires a response of repentance and faith. Repentance of those deeds that are incompatible with the reality of the kingdom and the law of the King, and faith in the one who is invested with royal power and authority. Judgment comes upon those who do not prepare the way of the Lord, and salvation to those who do.
John the Baptist was just different. He was a man who wore strange clothes and who kept up an even stranger diet. In verse 4, Matthew describes the man: “Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” Even back then and in that culture, this must have been strange – else it is hard to see why Matthew would bother to point it out. However, John’s wardrobe and culinary tastes were not the result of strange idiosyncrasies: they were undoubtedly chosen on purpose to communicate a message about who he was and what he was doing. As one has put it, “Even the food and dress of John preached.”
John’s clothing was meant to remind people of Elijah, who was described to the King of Israel in 2 Kings 1:8 as a man who “wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” The King immediately knew whom they had described: “And he said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’” It seems that Elijah must have set such a precedent that later prophet-wannabes wore this type of clothing to indicate their occupation as the local seer. In fact, in Zechariah 13:4 we read that in the day when idolatry is rooted out of the land and the false prophets are cut off that, “On that day every prophet will be ashamed of his vision when he prophesies. He will not put on a hairy cloak in order to deceive.”
But when John put on the hairy cloak and the leather belt, he was no false prophet. He was figuratively the reincarnation of Elijah. We know this because this is exactly what Jesus says: “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt. 11:14; cf. 17:10-13).
In keeping with the rough clothing, John led a rather ascetic lifestyle. He was known as one who “came neither eating nor drinking” (11:18). The locusts and wild honey were part of this lifestyle. And by the way, these were real locusts, not the fruit of the locust tree as some have claimed. These were large grasshoppers, and they are still eaten by people in the East. At times, John probably had parts of grasshoppers sticky with honey sticking in different parts of his beard.
And then there was John’s church. It was not a building; it was not even a tabernacle in a nice place. Instead, John preached his message “in the wilderness of Judea” (3:1), a place that encompassed the lower Jordan valley and the area directly west of the Dead Sea. Carson describes it as “hot and, apart from the Jordan itself, largely arid, though not unpopulated.”
The meager diet and rough clothing and unpleasant location were meant to provide in some sense a frame for his message. John did not come to preach pleasantries to people. He did not come with a plastic smile and pointers on how to have your best life now. Instead, he wanted people to see that after 400 years of silence, God was speaking again, and speaking through him. He wanted people to see that the message he came to give was serious and real and earthshattering. He wanted people to see that they needed to stop spending so much time on earthly comforts and instead prepare themselves for the kingdom of heaven. For the King was coming. And it would be good for us to put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of those who came to hear John. For the King who came once is coming again. The response appropriate in John’s day is still the response that is appropriate in our own. What then exactly was his message?
The Message of the Kingdom
John preached that men should repent. But we need to understand why repentance is called for, and why it is utterly imperative that we do so. To really understand John’s message we need to know what he means when he grounds his call to repentance in the kingdom of heaven: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). In fact, the reality of the kingdom of heaven not only grounds the call to repentance, but also the warning to flee from the wrath to come (3:7) and the expectation of the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire (3:11). In other words, we need to understand what John meant by the kingdom of heaven.
A couple of preliminaries are in order. First, since Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience and as a Jew himself, he followed the Jewish practice in his gospel by using circumlocution for “God.” Thus, whereas other gospel writers say “kingdom of God,” Matthew mostly says “kingdom of heaven.” So we should not make the mistake that some have made in making a distinction between the two. They are the same thing. In fact, we see this even in Matthew’s gospel. In 19:23-24, Jesus is speaking his disciples, and Matthew quotes him this way:
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
It is clear that Jesus is referring to the same reality in these verses by “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God.”
Second, this message was not unique to John. It was the same message preached by Jesus and his apostles, both before his Resurrection and after. When Jesus began to preach, we are told that “from that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (4:17; cf. v. 23). When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, he told them, “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (10:7). As Jesus forecasted the events leading up to his Return, he told his followers that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (24:14). This is exactly what we see Paul doing at the close of Acts: “And he lived two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 24:30-31). In other words, the message of the Christian church, the message which we still have the privilege and responsibility of proclaiming, is the message about the kingdom of heaven.
What then is the message of the kingdom of heaven? To understand what John was talking about, we need to understand what he meant by the word “kingdom.” In modern parlance, kingdom usually refers to a domain, a realm, and piece of land over which a king reigns and where his authority is recognized. But this is not what the biblical authors primarily meant when they spoke of the kingdom of heaven. John Stott was correct when he wrote that “the kingdom of God is neither a territorial jurisdiction nor even a spiritual structure. God’s kingdom is God himself ruling over his own people and bestowing upon them all the privileges and responsibilities which that rule implies.” In other words, in the Bible, kingdom has a dynamic connotation and stands for the reign of God.
We see this usage illustrated very clearly in several places in Scripture. I will point to one. In Luke 19, Jesus tells a story of a nobleman who goes to a far country to receive a kingdom (19:12). Now clearly, he did not go to get a realm, for he returns later to assert his authority over his realm after he has received his kingdom. In this story, to receive a kingdom means to receive the authority or right to rule. Thus, the kingdom of God is the authority that God exercises to assert his saving rule over the nations.
George E. Ladd defines the kingdom of God this way. He says that “the kingdom of God is the sovereign rule of God, manifested in the person and work of Christ, creating a people over whom he reigns, and issuing in a realm or realms in which the power of his reign in realized.”
Thus, the kingdom of God is both present and future. It is present wherever God’s rule is manifested, however imperfectly. Thus, in the parable of the Sower, the kingdom of God is compared to a seed which is sown in the hearts of men (Matt. 13:19). The kingdom can be found now and treasured now (13:44-45). We are told in this gospel that when Jesus cast out demons that this was a manifestation of the kingdom of God there and then: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). And when Jesus comes into our hearts, and reforms them into hearts that love his law and rest in his salvation, then the kingdom of God has come into our hearts. The new birth brings the kingdom of God in the here and now: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
But the kingdom of God is also future. God’s saving rule has not yet perfectly come in this broken world. That is why we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” (Matt. 6:10). Jesus talks about entering the kingdom of God at the end of the age (Matt. 7:21). Those who are born again do indeed enter the kingdom of God in the sense that God has extended his saving reign over their hearts. But the full and perfect enjoyment of that kingdom awaits the future when Christ returns.
When John the Baptist preached that the kingdom of heaven had come near, he was right on because it had come near in the person of the Son of God, the King. God’s rule is manifested in Christ and established by him. To preach the kingdom of God is to proclaim the sovereignty and the authority of the King who saves. And to preach that the kingdom is near is to declare that the King is near in his power to rule. Or, to use the language of the prophet, to preach that men should repent because the kingdom is at hand is to cry that men should prepare the way of the Lord and to make his paths straight (3:3). The message of the kingdom then, is the proclamation that the King has arrived and we need to be prepared to welcome him.
We are thus reminded in the language of the kingdom that Jesus is King. The Magi worshipped him as such, and now John the Baptist announces him in the same way. Moreover, he is more than just another earthly king, as the prophesy indicates. This is a quote from Isaiah 40:3, in which the Lord is a reference to the God of Israel. Here, Matthew equates Jesus with the Lord of Isaiah 40:3. Thus, this is yet another reference to the divinity of our Lord.
My friends, it was not just the first-century Jews who needed to prepare for the coming King. We, who live between the first and second Advents of our Lord, need to be prepared, as well. Isn’t this the point of Jesus’ command to watch? (See Matt. 24:36-51; 25:13). “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes” (v. 46). How then, do we do this?
The Call to Repentance
The fundamental message of John the Baptist, our Lord, and his apostles was a message of repentance. The reason we need to repent is because on account of our sinfulness and selfishness we have turned our backs on the King. Instead of doing his will, we live to do our own will. Instead of obeying his commandments, we become a law unto ourselves. In other words, the human race as a whole lives in complete denial of God’s right to rule over them. Thus, the reality of the kingdom demands a response of repentance. Or, in the words of the text, we ought to repent because God has come in the person of his Son to reassert his rule over us. To those who embrace him, there is mercy; to those who reject him, there is judgment.
But what is repentance? Let’s begin with what it is not. And there is no better way than to illustrate this with the audience John had with the Pharisees and Sadducees. We read that many of them came to his baptism – probably just to observe, but they certainly got an earful! John takes the opportunity here to win friends and influence people. In verses 7-10 we read about the encounter:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
With these words, John dispels the notion that repentance is merely external. It’s more than getting religion. You can get religion and still go to hell. Both these religious groups were good at religion and yet John calls them out for what they were: a brood of vipers. Repentance is therefore a thing of the heart; after all, God is the Lord of our hearts and minds, not just of our bodies. If you would repent, you must therefore repent with all your heart. You must not only forsake your wrong ways, you must also forsake your wrong thoughts (Isa. 55:6-7). Our main problem, anyway, is a problem with our heart. It’s a problem of loving ourselves instead of God, and we need to repent of this fundamental idolatry.
Repentance is also more than just a change of mind. Sometimes you will hear the word defined in those terms. But this is not enough. John warned these religious leaders that they needed to produce works worthy of repentance (ver. 8). A changed heart is going to produce a changed life. In fact, in Luke we read that John gets very practical with how people should repent, what it should look like (Luke 3:10-14).
How do we receive the King? What then is repentance? It is this: it is a complete change of heart and mind accompanied by a corresponding change of life that is the result of seeing Jesus for who he is: our Lord and King. I love the way the Shorter Catechism puts it: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience” (Q 87).
True repentance is always accompanied by faith in Christ, or an “apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.” John doesn’t just call people to repent; he calls them to look for the one who “is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (ver. 11). He is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Here, fire is a cleansing agent (much like the coal from the altar that took Isaiah’s sin away, Isa. 6:6-7), and the Holy Spirit is the one who will cause God’s people to embrace from the heart his rule over them. Probably John had Ezekiel 36:25-27 in mind:
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. And 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. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
In other words, here is the mercy of God. Our hearts are hardened and stiff in our opposition to God; we do not submit to the law of God, neither can we (Rom. 8:7), but the Holy Spirit comes and changes our hearts and turns us to God. And the one who makes this work possible is Jesus Christ. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is founded in the person and work of the Son of God.
The very fact that Christ has come is an indication that this is a mission of mercy and that the call to repentance is not a call to make ourselves fit for God but is a call to embrace God’s mercy in Christ in a way that is appropriate to that mercy. You don’t embrace God’s mercy by putting up your hand and saying “No!” to his King; you embrace God’s mercy by embracing his King through repentance and faith.
The Warning of Judgment
What happens if you don’t repent of our self-centeredness and embrace Christ as your King? John has some very troubling words for such people. He warns that “every tree . . . that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (ver. 10). This fire is not cleansing; it is destroying. A few verses later, he pictures Christ as a farmer who winnows his wheat to separate the wheat from the chaff, and though he gathers his wheat into his barn, “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (ver. 12). He is undoubtedly referring to hell and to the possibility that a person can be lost forever. As Ryle put it, “It is no small matter whether we repent or not.”
There is a call to all men to repent (Acts 17:30). And this call to repent is a call to fundamentally alter the direction of our lives, so that we are no longer self-centered, but God-centered. There is a sense in which this takes place at the beginning of our Christian life in a unique way. But I was reminded recently that for the believer repentance is not just something that we did a long time ago to become a Christian; it is a way of life. Every day we need to repent because every day the world is tugging at your heart to turn it away from Christ.
What areas are there in your life right now that the Holy Spirit is telling you to turn over to him? What areas of your heart are unsurrendered?
We should never make the mistake to let sin fool us that it is worth it to follow our lusts and those desires that put us in opposition to God. Sin offers you a kingdom in the here-and-now; Christ offers you a kingdom into which you enter now but which lasts forever and far exceeds the delights of this world in its excellence and glory. The rule of God is not a terrible thing; it is a freeing and saving reality. And it is a reality that all of us will have to reckon with, sooner or later.