Right About Face!!
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 3:1c Holman . . .in the Wilderness of Judea. . .
The Wilderness of Judea is the rolling badlands southeast of Jerusalem and west of the Dead Sea. The area is thinly inhabited, dry, rocky, and barren, except for an abundance of brushwood and snakes.
In this wilderness John grew up and learned of God. David wrote here Psalm 63, saying of God, “I thirst for You; my body faints for You in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water” (63:1). In 1969 Episcopal Bishop James Pike went here to draw close to God. He accidently fell off a cliff to his death. He underestimated how austere and tough this area is.
The wilderness was a fit object lesson in nature to picture the spiritual desolation of the nation, but other than this, it was an odd place to establish a preaching ministry. Did John preach here in order to limit the number of people who came to him? Did he call people away from the cities because he wanted to preach only to people serious about their relationship with God?
I have a friend who teaches church classes at weird hours. He says it’s his way of making sure only people who are earnest about the class take it.
Matt. 3:2a . . .and saying, “Repent,. . .”
“Repent” is the message Jesus (MK 1:15) and the Disciples (MK 6:12) started with. Peter preached about it at Pentecost (AC 2:38); Paul said repentance summarized all his ministry and calling (AC 26:20). John, Jesus, Disciples, Peter, Paul–impressive; “repent” is obviously an important word.
It means right about face, a radical transformation of one’s entire being resulting in a 180-degree turnaround in life. True repentance happens when a changed mind changes behavior, when we are sorry enough about sin to want to quit it.
“Repent” is the word God has His preachers use when He is preparing to do something new and special. The word assumes the reason the new and special has not taken place sooner is due to a problem in the people.
“Repent” presupposes the listeners’ lives are off course, headed the wrong way. For God to work mightily in us, we must become self-declared sinners, agreeing with God against ourselves.
John, a stern man with a stern message, fearlessly condemned evil in everyone–laypeople, religious leaders, soldiers, and the King. He preached there is a huge divide in our collective human experience, and it behooves people to choose the right side, which they can do only by repentance. Be wise; we don’t want to be on the wrong side of God.
Matt. 3:2b “. . .because the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
Matthew, the only Gospel writer who used the phrase “kingdom of heaven”, wrote it 32 times. Its meaning is the same as “kingdom of God”, as shown in Matthew 19:23-24, where the phrases are used interchangeably.
Matthew used this indirect figure of speech to sidestep unnecessary offense to Jews, many of whom felt it was presumptuous to refer to God directly. He was doing what we do when we say “Heaven help me” or “Heaven smiled on me today.” George Washington often used this approach. He would use the word Providence to avoid what he deemed disrespectful, sentimental familiarity. People have said this trait proved he was a deist, but the words he used were common in the liturgy of the church he attended.
Since the kingdom is of “heaven” it does not entail any geographical territory of this world, but is a spiritual realm, sent from Heaven and for Heaven. The Old Testament priesthood pictured, and was fulfilled in, Jesus; the sacrificial system pictured, and was fulfilled in, the cross; the Holy Land pictured, and was fulfilled in, the whole world. The kingdom of heaven includes angels, saints of all eras, and the Church (saints alive now). It is the spiritual rule of God over everything and everyone that is subjected to Jesus.
When Jesus came to Earth, the kingdom of heaven entered a more widely observable phase. John felt called to start gathering people who had grown lax in their commitment to once again be subject to God. The King of the kingdom was coming among them, and deserved respect. We believers have but one King–King Jesus. When our founding fathers adopted the resolution for independence, Sam Adams said, “We have this day restored the Sovereign, to Whom alone men ought to be obedient. He reigns in Heaven and. . .from the rising to the setting sun, may His Kingdom come”. Adams’ recurring theme had long been, “No King but King Jesus.”
Since Jesus is our king, He is our boss, the One we will stand before, and give an account to, someday. Christianity is not a make-it-up-as-you-go religion. We who are subjects of the King have no right to change the rules.
When we do enact this bad option, anarchy results. Some of the worst Bible days were in the times of the Judges. “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (JG 21:25).
Our detractors seem to forget we believers are under nonretractable orders. The Scriptures are inerrant (without error), infallible (unfailing), and immutable (unchangeable). Unbelievers think we can make adjustments to our faith. When we do not change to satisfy their demands, we are villified.
Pastor Louie Giglio, due to his view on homosexuality, was disinvited to pray at the President’s inauguration. Quarterback Tim Tebow chose not to accept a speaking engagement at FBC Dallas due an uproar that arose in part over his going to a church that believed Christ is the only way to Heaven.
Ed Stetzer has well asked, “Where do people of faith with long-standing traditional religious/scriptural convictions go from here? Will they be marginalized and demonized even as they serve the poor, care for the orphan, or speak against injustice? Are we to throw out our sacred texts and adopt the passing fancy of new cultural notions? Are Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews no longer welcome in the public square?”
The kingdom of heaven is not a democracy, a republic, an oligarchy, or anarchy. It is a monarchy ruled by a kind benevolent King who is ever on the march to reclaim what was originally His. In His infinite mercy, God said of us humans, “Let them have dominion” (GN 1:26). He created us in His own image, to be like Him, to rule His creation beneath Him.
We threw away this kingdom, and gave it to another god (2 C 4:4). With Abraham, God drove a stake in the ground, and said, “I am taking my kingdom back”. He said He would send a prophet like Moses, a king like David. Jesus fulfilled these predictions. The war between good and evil continues unabated, a war that will continue till Jesus comes again to rule as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Matt. 3:3a For he is the one spoken of through the Prophet Isaiah, who
said: A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
In Isaiah 40:3, the Jews returning from the Babylonian captivity are pictured as passing through the Syrian desert, with God Himself leading their procession home. He was their champion, crying out on their behalf. This scene pictured in microcosm a time when God would come to provide an even more glorious liberation, a spiritual deliverance for the whole world.
This time the one crying out was John. “Voice” was an interesting title for one whose dad was struck speechless due to unbelief. He was a voice for sure. He still thunders across the centuries. Jesus was the sin-bearer in His body. John was a sin-bearer in his conscience; the sins of the nation weighed him down, and forced a cry of agony from his lips of such huge magnitude that its shrill cry can still be heard.