Understanding the Gospel of Matthew and Why it Matters - Part 8
1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,
2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
3 For 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.'"
John the Baptist (v.1)
John the Baptist was the cousin of Jesus, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. The first chapter of Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel appeared to the elderly Zechariah in the Temple, and told him that he and Elizabeth were going to have a baby. The baby's name was to be John, and he would "be great before the Lord", turning "many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God." Zechariah doubted that he would be able to have a child at his age, and asked Gabriel for a sign that what had been promised would come true. Gabriel responded, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time." Sure enough, Zechariah came out of the temple unable to speak, and remained mute for the entire nine months that Elizabeth was pregnant.
Not long after this, Mary was found to be pregnant with the baby Jesus. She came to stay with Elizabeth for a while, and when she greeted Elizabeth upon her arrival, Elizabeth said, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy."
Luke goes on to record that after John the Baptist was born, Elizabeth declared that his name would be John. But all her family and neighbors questioned her, because there was no one else in her family named John. They went to Zechariah, and he motioned for a tablet, and on the tablet he wrote, "His name is John". Immediately Zechariah was able to speak again.
It had been told to Zechariah by the angel Gabriel that his son was to be the one who would "make ready for the Lord a people prepared." It seems reasonable to believe that this was revealed to John by his parents at some point during his childhood, because by the time that we encounter John as an adult, he is incredibly sure of his special identity as the Messiah's forerunner.
Sometime before age thirty, it appears that his parents both died, and John went to live out in the wilderness. There he took on the lifestyle for which he is known, wearing a garment of camel hair and eating locusts and honey. John also began preaching, and people came from all around to hear this gifted and unique orator emerge from his solitude in the wilderness to prophesy to the people of Israel.
John became particularly known for doing something that no other teacher had done in Israel, namely, baptize Jews. Centuries before, if a Gentile had wanted to become a Jew and thus be included among God's people, there were several things that had to take place: First, if it was a man, he had to be circumcised. Second, the proselyte had to come into the Temple and perform his first duty as a Jew, which was to offer a sacrifice. Before he could offer the sacrifice, however, he had to be cleansed by going to the river and "immersing" himself. (The word baptizo, from which we get the word "baptize", means "to immerse".) Once the temple was destroyed, there was no longer any place to offer a sacrifice, and so the baptism became the focal point of the ceremony. Thus, Gentiles became citizens of Israel by being baptized.
You can see why John became known as "the Baptizer". He was unique in that he initiated the revolutionary practice of baptizing Jews. You may wonder why a Jew would need to be baptized, since they were already citizens of Israel. We'll answer that question a little later.
It is extremely important to notice that the first time we see John open his mouth to preach, his first word is "Repent." Similarly, in Matthew 4:17, we are told that "Jesus began to preach, saying, 'Repent?'" John and Jesus both began their public ministries with the same word: repent.
Many people try to paint Jesus as a man who came preaching a message of tolerance. That is simply untrue. Jesus' primary message was one of intolerance. His message was that all people are sinners, that God will not tolerate our rebellion against Him. Thus, He called on everyone to repent.
Is your life characterized by repentance? In order to answer that question, we must first examine what repentance is. The ingredients of repentance are 1) an acknowledgment of sin, 2) a hatred of sin, 3) a turning from sin.
The first ingredient of repentance is a recognition and acknowledgment of sin. How foolish would it be for a doctor to tell a patient he has a severe cancer, one which needs to be removed immediately, and then for that patient to say, "No, I don't have cancer. I refuse to acknowledge it." That patient might choose to live the rest of his life pretending he does not have cancer, but it will not be long before the cancer kills him. Thomas Watson once said that your eyes were created both to see sin, and then to weep over that sin. But your eyes can't weep over the sin until they first see it.
It is possible that some people reading this book are living in outright sin against God. Deep down you know that the life which you are living is wrong, but you are doing everything you can to keep from having to acknowledge it. Jesus once said that He had not come to call the righteous, but sinners! No one can have the good news of the gospel until they first accept the bad news that they need the gospel.
I wonder, have you acknowledged your sin before God? David once said "My sin is always before me." Is that true of you? Are you aware of the abundance of sin in your life? What would it look like if all your sins were laid out before you on a table? What would you see? Recently, my wife and I had a large number of pictures developed. We enjoyed sitting together on our couch and going through the pictures. What would it be like if you opened up a set of pictures and each was of a different sin you had committed? Or worse, what if all those secret sins were exposed to the world?
The reality of the situation is that when you stand before God, every sin of your life will be exposed in just that way. Your only hope of salvation is to acknowledge that you are a sinner now, and to seek God's mercy, because on the day you stand before God it will be too late.
The second ingredient of repentance is hatred for sin. To truly repent, you have to feel sorrow for the sin that you've committed, and you have to hate the sin with such a passion that you vow to fight it for the rest of your life. There are many reasons why you should hate your sin. Consider these two:
1. You should hate sin because it is deceptive. Sin is like a fishing worm dangling in front of a hungry fish - it looks so tempting and inviting, yet what is not seen is the hook embedded in the bait. Sin presents itself as a golden cup, but there is poison inside!
Sin never tells you the true cost of giving in to its enticements. The serpent told Eve, "eat the fruit, you shall certainly not die", but didn't tell her that she would be evicted from the Garden of Eden. She traded paradise for a bite of an apple! So many people find themselves addicted to sins like alcohol, gambling, pornography, gossip, complaining, and lying because they tried it once and found themselves helplessly hooked. Now try as they might, they cannot seem to stop doing these things.
2. You should also hate sin because it keeps you from God. For those who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, there is no comparison between the happiness that is found in sin and the happiness found in Jesus. The Apostle Paul spoke of the "surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord." Is there any greater treasure in the entire world than God Himself? Yet every time we sin, we place a wall between ourselves and God. It is impossible to walk with God and live in sin. You cannot hold hands with God and the Devil at the same time. You cannot serve two masters. If you choose to follow after your sins, you will have to turn off the path of following Jesus.
It is foolishness to expect to have joy in Christ if you're also seeking joy in immoral sex, wealth, or other places. You don't go to a Coke machine and expect to get a Pepsi. In the same way, you cannot spend your time and energy involved in sin and expect to have the joy of the Lord! If you are missing the joy in your life that Jesus promises, it is probably because your time and energy are spent seeking pleasure at the broken fountain of sin rather than the ever-flowing fountain of Jesus Christ.
Christians ought to hate sin like fire hates water. What about you? Do you hate your sin? Have you declared war against your transgressions and vowed to rid yourself of them? There is no repentance without hatred of sin.
The final ingredient of repentance is turning from sin. It does no good to hate sin if we are not going to turn from it. I can say that I hate broccoli, but if I keep on eating it, you're going to suspect that I am telling a lie. In the same way, repentance is never real unless it results in a change. There are many people who at some point in there lives have "repented", but there was not change. Authentic repentance - which leads to authentic salvation - will always result in a change of heart and a change in our actions. Are you willing to turn from your sin?
The Motive for Repentance (v.2b)
John the Baptist declared, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." In considering this verse, don't allow yourself to be tripped up by the fact that Matthew uses the phrase "kingdom of heaven", while Mark, Luke, and John all use "kingdom of God." Matthew was a Jew writing to a Jewish audience and followed the common Jewish practice of replacing the name of God with the word "heaven", just as we might say "heaven have mercy". The Jews have always had a great respect for the name of God, and this is just one articulation of that respect.
The word "kingdom" is used here in the sense of "kingship". The emphasis is not on those being ruled, but on the authority of the one ruling?His "kingliness". Put more clearly, the first century Jews who heard John preach would have heard, "Repent, for the reign of God is at hand."
Of course, Jews believed rightly that God was reigning over the whole earth. But they were also looking forward to the promise of the prophets, namely, that God was going to set up a Jewish kingdom and reign over that kingdom in a special way. One example of these prophecies is Ezekiel 37:21-25:
"Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them, and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children's children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever."
This is the kingdom that the Jews were waiting on the Messiah to inaugurate. Now, along comes John the Baptist proclaiming that the appointed time has come, and that the Messiah is soon to arrive to build this kingdom. However, contrary to the common belief at the time, citizenship in this new kingdom was not inherited by having Abraham as your father, but by having the King as your Master. John the Baptist's message, then, was threefold:
1. God's promised Messiah is coming to build His promised kingdom.
2. You cannot disobey God's commandments and laws and expect to be included in this kingdom.
3. Therefore, repent, and become a citizen of this kingdom.
Now you see why John was baptizing Jews. Just like Gentiles used to be baptized to become a part of the kingdom of Israel, Jews were being baptized to become a part of the kingdom of God!
The Seventh Prophecy Fulfilled (v.3)
Matthew informs us that John's life and message were predicted by the prophet Isaiah seven hundred years before. He is "the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight." In the days of John, good roads were difficult to find. This was even truer in the time of Isaiah. If a king were planning to take a trip, he would often send servants ahead to prepare the roads and to ensure that there were no obstacles that could delay the journey. In the same way, John was instructing the people of Israel to prepare themselves for the arrival of their King by repenting of their sins and turning back to the commandments of God.
An Exhortation to Repentance
Let us close this chapter with three reasons that we should practice repentance. First, we should practice repentance because there is no other way to heaven. It is a tragedy that so many people live completely contrary to God's commands, and yet expect to go to heaven based on family history. Some of these Jews were depending on their ancestor, Abraham, as their ticket to the kingdom of heaven. Some people today are depending on their parents or grandparents. They assume that because their family included a few devout followers of Christ, the whole family will be saved. There are some things in your life that you can never know for sure. You cannot know for sure whether or not it is going to rain tomorrow. You cannot know for sure that tomorrow you will not come down with some sort of sickness. You cannot know for sure that tomorrow - or today - will not be the last day of your life. But of this you can be sure: when your time comes, you will stand before Almighty God and give an accounting for your life.
Sometimes, if a man commits the perfect crime, he can fool the cops and escape having to answer for his evil act. It is not so with God. No one will escape having to stand before God. It is as sure as the very existence of God Himself. On that day, no one will be able to say, "O God, my mother was a holy woman," or "O God, my grandmother was a devout follower of you." On that day, the issue will not be the religiosity of your family, but the vileness of your sin. Therefore, repent today! Today is the day of salvation. Only by repentance today will you be able to stand before God with joy in the future.
Second, we should practice repentance because the wages of sin is death. The result of sin is spiritual death, which results in an eternity in hell. Hell is a real place. If you believe in a just God, you have to believe in hell, because God has to have a way to punish sinners who commit the ultimate sin of rejecting Him. Unbeliever, if you continue walking down the road of disdain for God, and if you do not turn around, you are eventually going to get to the end of that road - and that is a place you do not want to be. I plead with you, for your sake, that you not take another step down that road of sin, but rather turn around and follow Jesus!
Third, we should practice repentance because the longer you go without repenting, the harder it will be to do so in the future. Sin has a side-effect: it hardens your heart. The more a person sins, the harder and more calloused his heart becomes. After just a little involvement in sin, a person no longer feels as bad about his sin as he once did. Sin becomes easier and easier the more you do it, and repenting becomes harder and harder. The further a person goes in sin, the harder it is to turn around. Therefore, repent today, while you still can!
Justin Nale is the pastor of Mount Hermon Missionary Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, NC - http://www.mhmbc.org
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