************ Sermon on Matthew 3:2 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 26, 2004
"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is Near"
As we have been going through the Christmas story we have been asking ourselves the same question over and over again: why did Jesus come, why did the second person of the triune Godhead take on our human flesh, why the incarnation?
The first Sunday of advent we were reminded that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim 1:15). The second Sunday of advent we were reminded that Christ came to humble himself. The third Sunday of advent we were told that Christ came for sick sinners. The fourth Sunday of advent we were told that Christ came to show compassion. Christmas Day we learned that Christ came to save us from perishing.
Today we examine another question: "How should we respond to Christ's coming?" This morning we learned one answer: like the Magi we should bow down and worship Jesus. This evening John the Baptist gives us another answer: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Mt 3:2).
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Mt 3:2). This sums up John the Baptist's message and it also summarizes Christ's message (cf Mt 4:17).
The significance of John the Baptist's message can be appreciated only by seeing it within its historical setting. For centuries now the living voice of prophecy has been stilled. No longer did God speak directly through a human voice to His people. No prophet proclaimed God's will; no prophet explained why Israel was oppressed and subjected to Gentile overlords; no prophet condemned Israel's sins and announced judgment; no prophet called for national mourning and repentance; no prophet promised a time of salvation if God's people confessed their sin.
Suddenly the four centuries of silence was broken when John the Baptist appeared on the scene.
There was no doubt that John the Baptist was a prophet of the Lord. Like an Old Testament prophet, his "clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey" (Mt 3:4; cf Zech 13:4). In commenting on John, Matthew says,
(Mt 3:3) This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"According to Matthew, John the Baptist is the forerunner to the Messiah spoken of by Isaiah (Is 40:3) and Malachi (Mal 3:1; 4:5,6). And, like some Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist suddenly appears on the scene with a very Old Testament message: "Repent ..." "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Mt 3:2).
It should not be difficult to imagine all the excitement that the appearance of a prophet with such a message would create. God, Who for centuries seemed to be inactive and withdrawn, now at last was acting to fulfill the promises given to the prophets; at last He was going to bring in the Kingdom with all its fullness. Apparently, news of John the Baptist spread like wildfire throughout Judea and moved throngs of people to flock to the Jordan River where he was preaching (vs 5). There they listened to his message, confessed their sins, and were baptized by him in the river (vs 6).
A It is easy to discern Matthew's message to the Church of all ages: the promised Son of David and Son of Abraham has come, the Savior is here, the Immanuel is present, the promised Messiah has arrived, salvation history has been fulfilled, so repent.
What does the Baptizer mean by repent? Repentance is an Old Testament idea which simply means to turn from sin and to God; many know it today as conversion. Those who repent or convert undergo a radical change in their life; instead of living the life of sin they strive, instead, to live the life of obedience and faith.
An example of the radical change brought about by repentance/conversion is the conversion of Jack Eckerd. Jack Eckerd is the founder of the Eckerd Drug chain, the second largest drug chain in America. After months of prayer and testimonies by his good friend Charles Colson, he finally believed the Gospel and accepted Jesus into his life and was born-again by the Spirit of God.
But now the hard part was about to begin: now, his was the responsibility to lead the converted life, to turn from sin and to God. The first thing he did after being born-again was to walk into one of his drugstores. Going down the aisles he saw copies of Playboy and Penthouse. He'd seen them in his stores many times before, but they never bothered him before. Now he saw them with new eyes, with born-again eyes. He knew what had to be done.
He went back to his office. He called in his president. He said, "Take Playboy and Penthouse out of my stores." The president said, "You can't mean that, Mr. Eckerd. We make three million dollars a year on those magazines." He said, "Take 'em out of my stores." And in 1,700 stores across America, by one man's decision, those magazines were removed from the shelves because that man had given his life to Christ and was now living the converted life.
After this, Ekderd's drugs began to get floods of people coming in to buy things at Eckerd's because they'd taken Playboy and Penthouse out. And so People's and then Revco and then Dart Drug all removed them from their shelves too. Finally, the chairman of 7-11, who sits on Jack Eckerd's board, also gave in and 5,000 7-11 stores removed them too.
Now, while this was happening, the pornography commission in Washington was debating over what to do about pornography. They were trying to come up with recommendations that the Congress could pass and the President could sign into law. They debated and argued and sweated over proposals that produced a nice report but very little action. Imagine, in a period of twelve months, 11,000 retail outlets in America removed Playboy and Penthouse, not because of a presidential commission, not because someone passed a law, but because one man led the converted life.
Like Jack Eckerd we too are to lead the converted life. We are to turn from sin and to God; we are to do what is right.
B Those who listened to John and truly repented of their sins were baptized by him. Unlike the baptism we practice, unlike the baptism instituted by Christ, John's baptism is a sign of repentance and conversion. "I baptize you with water for repentance," says John (Mt 3:11). The Baptizer's baptism, in other words, points to man's faith and sorrow for sin rather than to God's promises. That's why John had such harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadducees: like everyone else, they wanted to be baptized by this popular man, but they did not "produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Mt 3:8). They wanted John's baptism while continuing their wicked and hypocritical ways. John wanted nothing to do with them.
Can you imagine going to a Classis or Synod meeting. You stand up and say to all the ministers and elders: "You bunch of crawling, poisonous snakes." To say this is either an act of tremendous courage or one of extreme foolishness. Believe me, you will not win many friends by talking this way. Yet, that's exactly what John the Baptist said to the ministers of his day: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Mt 3:7,8). "You bunch of snakes. You had better repent," said John, "and that repentance had better be real." The Baptizer pleads for a real repentance and conversion. His cry is desperate, frenzied, emphatic. "REPENT!"
How real is our repentance and conversion? Do we really try to turn from sin and to God? Does John the Baptist have to talk to us the same way he talked to the Pharisees and Sadducees? Are we too a bunch of crawling, poisonous snakes who make only a pretense at living the converted life?
II For the Kingdom of Heaven is Near
A Why do both John and Jesus call all men to repentance? Again our text gives us the answer: "Repent," they say, "for the kingdom of heaven is near."
"The kingdom of heaven is near." That's the same as the "kingdom of God" in the other gospels. Being a Jew and writing to Jews, Matthew is very hesitant to create offense by using the holy name of God. So he uses the title, "kingdom of heaven." Matthew loves to talk about the kingdom of heaven; we find over 50 references to the kingdom in his gospel.
What is the kingdom of heaven? It is the blessed rule of God in and through the Messiah.
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." "Repent, for God's rule in and through the Christ is about to begin."
Now, John preached and Matthew knows that there are two sides to the rule of God in the coming kingdom: baptism with the Holy Spirit and baptism with fire (Mt 3:11). More specifically, the coming of the kingdom means the righteous will be baptized with the Spirit and the wicked will be baptized with fire. "Repent, says the Baptizer, because "after me will come one who ... will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."
B The baptism of the Spirit. Think of the Spirit and what it gives and brings. It is the Spirit Who applies and makes real in our lives the work of Christ on our behalf: giving us rebirth, new life, new obedience; fruits and gifts; answered prayer; assurance of life eternal; a joy and desire to live out the new life. In the kingdom of heaven God's people will be baptized with the Spirit. With the Spirit, they all, from the least to the greatest of them, can know and call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." "Repent, for soon the Spirit will come and whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
There is also another side to the kingdom: the baptism of fire, what we know as the final judgment. You see, "now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor 6:2), now is the time when whoever repents and calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved; but it will not always remain this way. There will come a time when the Lord will come in judgment. And when that happens, it is too late to repent. In fact, the time is shorter than we think (1 Cor 7:29). John says,
(Mt 3:10) The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.In a dry climate, like in Palestine, every tree is valuable. Normally, unfruitful trees would not be destroyed by burning; rather, the wood is saved for domestic and manufacturing purposes.
John further explains what he means by using the image of the threshing floor. At the threshing floor the grain is thrown into the air; the wind carries away the straw and chaff and the plump kernels of grain fall to the floor. The wheat is gathered into the barn and the chaff is burned with unquenchable fire.
"Repent," says John, "for the kingdom of heaven is near." At that time a separation – such as what happens at the threshing floor – will take place: some will be gathered into the divine granary and others will be swept away in the fires of judgment.
C "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." Only those who repent and believe, only those who call on the name of the Lord, are not burned in the eternal fire. The Pharisees and Sadducees thought that they were safe because they were part of the chosen race, children of Abraham; they thought their election and salvation was assured. But John says their religion counts for nothing without genuine repentance and faith: "And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham" (Mt 3:9). Membership in the Christian Reformed Church, being a baptized and covenant member, also counts for nothing apart from repentance and faith.
So I have to say what John said: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Turn from sin and to God or yours will be the baptism of fire."
D A close study of John's proclamation and theology discloses that John – even though he lived at the time of Jesus – is not a New Testament but rather an Old Testament prophet. You see, like the Old Testament prophets who preceded him, John thought there was only one coming of the Christ. Therefore John the Baptist viewed salvation and judgment, the baptism of the Spirit and the baptism of fire, as two aspects of one visit. We know far better than John the Baptist, for we live after Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension. We know that after Jesus first came the Spirit was poured out. And, we know that after Jesus comes again the judgment will take place.
This does not mean, however, that John the Baptist made a mistake. The kingdom was really coming, and the king really did come. And, the Baptizer was right when he said that no one can enter the kingdom of heaven without repentance and faith.
The promised Son of David and Son of Abraham has come, the Savior is here, the Immanuel is present, the promised Messiah has arrived, salvation history has been fulfilled, so repent. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."
Now I need to warn you, congregation, that if you don't repent, yours is the baptism of fire and judgment. And, I need to further warn you that now is the time to repent, now before it is too late, before you die or the Lord returns.
The road to hell, it is paved with good intentions. The road to hell, it is littered with those who intended to turn from sin and to God. But, for one reason or another they never got around to it.
All of us are like that. We all tend to postpone repentance. We try to put off to later all clean up work: in our rooms, around the house, and in our lives. We all tolerate for far too long the existence of certain sins within us. One of Satan's most effective demons is called Procrastinator.
An ancient story recalls how Satan once summoned his top three aides to plan how to stop the growth of the church.
One of the lieutenants, Atheist, said to Satan, "We should convince them that there is no God." Satan sneered at Atheist and replied, "That would never work. They know that there is a God.
Another of Satan's aides, Bitterness, spoke up. "We'll convince them that God does not really care about right or wrong." Satan toyed with the notion for a few moments, but rejected it because he knew that too many Christians know that God does care.
Procrastinator, the third satanic helper, came up with his idea. "We'll let them go on thinking that there is a God and that He cares about right and wrong. But we will keep whispering that there is no hurry, there is no hurry."
Satan howled with glee. He gave Procrastinator a big promotion. Satan knew that he would find this strategy successful with many, many people. And he did, and does.
Congregation, I have to tell you, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." Don't wait until later. Do it now. For later may be too late!
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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