Message: The Call for Heaven’s Citizens | Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12 | Speaker: Stephen Choy
In the 6th grade, I remember one specific pop-quiz that we were given, which was really more like a test because it was comprised of something like 50 questions. For me, it wasn’t just a test, it was more of an impossibility because not only would 50 questions be difficult for a slow reader like myself to complete within the normal timeframe, but we were told prior to starting that we would only receive ten minutes to complete it. If we finished early, we were to put our pencils down, fold our hands, and sit up straight.
As soon as I received the piece of paper, I began doing it. The first question seemed unimportant to me—told us to read through the questions. So, I went to the second question, which was a logic problem that took me 5 of the ten minutes to complete.
Realizing very quickly that I was not going to finish, I started to skim the questions and do the ones that I could answer without delay, hoping at the end to come back to the rest. But in the midst of my scramble, with more than 4 minutes to spare, I saw out of the corner of my eye, one of my best friends, his name was Chapman, put his pencil down, fold his hands, and sit up straight. In fact, it wasn’t just me that noticed, other students began looking at him too—some of whom I overheard whispering to themselves, “No way he’s finished. That’s impossible. He cheated.”
At the end of the ten minutes, our teacher chimed up and said, “That’s time. Pencil’s down. Please pass your papers up to the front.” And after doing so, my teacher asked, “who completed the quiz?” To the surprise of everyone, only Chapman raised his hand. The teacher then asked Chapman how he finished so quickly? And Chapman responded, “I followed the first instruction by reading through all the questions, and the last question at the bottom of the page said, ‘once you’ve finished reading through the questions, write your name at the top of the page, and you’re done. Place your pencil down, fold your hands, and sit up straight.’”
I hope you know that the lesson here is that when you’re given instructions, you’re not just meant to read them, but you’re also meant to follow them. And while I dislike calling the Bible a book of instructions, because its much more than that, every so often we come across passages where the instructions are so crucial for our lives, that it would be a travesty for me not to highlight them. Today, we come to such a passage. It’s a passage that has sweeping implications for us because what it’s ultimately about is citizenship.
More precisely, our passage is about how to become citizens in the kingdom of heaven, and, brothers and sisters, sinners and saints, Matthew, the author of this book, under the inspired direction of God himself, is telling us that all we need to do to become citizens is to first hear the instructions and then follow them. There’s no additional application or interview. There’s the call, and if you’re willing to answer that call, then the keys to the kingdom—and all the rights, assigns, and freedoms associated with it—are yours.
That’s what our passage teaches us today—that to become citizens of heaven, all we have to do is heed what we’re told here and follow it, and my imperative—my proposition to you regarding what we’re taught this morning is equally simple: make sure you follow it—make certain to enter into the kingdom not as a visitor or as an outsider looking in but as a citizen who belongs—confidently so. We’re to make certain that those keys are ours, and Matthew tells us how to get them, starting with our first point:
1) Repenting Immediately
Read along with me in Matthew 3:1-6. TWoL: 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.’” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
We find ourselves roughly 25 years after the events of Matthew 1-2 where we learned about Jesus—that he is the new genesis, the new and true Israel, the better Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and David, the King of the Jews, the new exodus, the Saviour from sin, the coming Messiah, God with us. Jesus has come as the dawn of the end of the age in order to separate unto himself a newly defined people—a people that shall know him as Lord forever.
Well, now that we’ve received in grand and great detail who Jesus is, Matthew flips the direction of the narrative to tell us what he’s come to do. And he starts the retelling of Jesus’ ministry not with Jesus himself but with a man named John—a man who is known so well for his type of ministry that he’s called John the Baptizer, like Joseph the Carpenter, or Charles the Preacher. In fact, John is so influential and is amassing so many followers that Matthew includes the note to us in verse 5 that all of Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region surrounding the Jordan have come out to see and hear him.
And what they see, Matthew tells us, is a prophet. He is not only John the Baptizer, but he is John the Prophesier, and not only a prophet, but they see in him two prophets in particular: on the one hand, they see the authority and devastating zeal of Isaiah. Verse 3 highlights for us that John is the Isaiah-like figure who has come to warn the people that God—YHWH—that is what the word Lord here is referring to—God, himself, is coming to both save and judge—to bring about a new deliverance for those who are righteous and a new exile for those who remain in their sin and rejection of God.
But then verse 4 tells us he does so with the asceticism and power of Elijah—wearing clothes like Elijah did in 2 Kings 1:8. In fact, this is how Jesus describes John with his own words in Matthew 11:14, which tells us that John was doing and saying stuff with incredible effect—things that the Jews had not seen or heard in their lifetimes. It also tells us that just as Elijah was a precursor or forerunner for one who was more powerful and greater than him in Elisha, so too is John for Jesus.
Let me add one more detail about John the Baptist. Not only was he the mirror-image of the two most well-known prophets within Israel’s history, but he is also the first prophet to come along in over 400 years of silence from God after the Jews returned to Jerusalem from exile and were condemned by the prophet Malachi for their continued laxity and rebellion against the covenant and commands of God.
And yet, in that prophecy from Malachi, in 3:1, we’re told that despite Israel’s persistent waywardness and the optics that God no longer pursued his chosen people, he would be gracious to them again and send two individuals. The first would be a messenger to prepare the way, and his preparation would give way to the second—the Messianic Judge who would claim his people and condemn the rest. Matthew, along with Mark and Luke, tell us that John is that preceding messenger, which allows us to safely assume that Jesus is the second—the Messianic Judge.
I’ve just given you a lot of facts, perhaps, even, facts that you already know about John the Baptist, but it is necessary to detail them for you explicitly so that you might rightly hear his message. It is precisely because of who John is, how he proclaims this message, who he reflects in his proclamation, and the timing for which he proclaims it, as Israel has waited centuries for his arrival, that people are now flocking to him.
And what do they hear when they get to him? “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.” Now, we’ll get into what this word, “repent,” truly means in our next point, but what we cannot miss is that, at the very least, it means, in verses 1-6, that we are to die to ourselves. This is what it means to confess our sins (v.6)—that we desire to put a stop to our worship of created things instead of the Creator, to stop our wickedness, and our cosmic treason against an almighty and holy God.
This is also why these people were following that confession with baptism—because to repent, isn’t only to put to death our sinfulness, but to separate ourselves from it and mortify those desires in our identification that we are now something new. This is what baptism is—the fruit of our repentant confession, a sign that we belong with those who, like us, have made the same confession, and a symbol that we’ve been cleansed.
But before I talk more about true repentance and belief, I want to focus on the second element of John’s message, namely, the part that reads, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand [or has drawn near]” Because this phrase serves as the ground—the rationale/reason—for why John is calling his audience to repent. They’re to repent because the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.
The 400-year wait is over. The divine is coming to visit, establish justice, crush those who oppose him, and renew the universe by setting it right with a new creation—this is why Matthew uses the word “heaven” in “kingdom of heaven” instead of “kingdom of God,” like the other gospels. He’s telling his readers, Jews specifically, that this isn’t merely an earthly or political kingdom come to free you from Roman oppression as they thought.
No, this kingdom of heaven—the one that the prophet has come to prepare the way for—is far more than that. It is about a new, eternal relationship that will exist between Maker and man. It is about reestablishing and perfecting what was lost in Eden. It is about bringing his eternal people to their intended rest with him forever in their midst. It’s about being with and possessing God and not their individual, libertarian freedom.
And that same God has now come to make it happen—to judge the living from the dead. The Day of the Lord—the day of great salvation and fearful judgment is now upon us. There is so much written on what was meant by the nearness of the kingdom, but it doesn’t take a scholar to realize that John simply meant that the time for God’s gathering of his people to himself was imminent, like a plane about to touch down upon the tarmac—the arrival of the Messiah has dawned, and his carrying out of his purpose will be swift.
John’s words are a caution: don’t delay in making certain that you belong to the living and not to the dead. His message becomes even more astounding when we realize the prophet’s not preaching to gentiles but to Jews—a race that assumed their own righteousness—that assumed they were the chosen people of God. The prophet is here telling them that they can no longer make that assumption. They’ve gone their own way for far too long, and they need to come back and be restored before it is too late.
Moreover, he’s not just preaching to Jews, but he’s preaching to Jews in the wilderness. He’s trying to make it blaringly obvious to them both in word and in geographic symbolism that they’re still standing in the place outside of the promise—all of this time has elapsed, and they’ve still missed the mark. But, even in all of their stupidity, it is not yet out of their reach. The promise can be realized. All they have to do is follow the instructions. You’ve been given these last 400 years to do it. One who is like the great, revered prophets of old has been so-to-speak reborn in order to relay the message. Repent! Do not delay!
And dear friends, for those of us whose prophet is greater than John the Baptist—for those of us whose prophet’s name is Jesus—the imperative is even more pressing, do not delay! Repent! Run to Jesus. Be baptized in accordance with your confession of sin because the kingdom of heaven is imminent, and the patience of God to withhold the condemnation of your rebellion is coming to an end. Be certain that you are not swept up in his wrath. Be certain to enter into that kingdom.
2) Believing Sincerely
Read along with me in Matthew 3:7-12. TWoL: 7 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? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 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. 10 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. 11 “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. 12 His 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.”
Now, I’ve implied that there is more to the definition of repentance than mere confession of sin, and it would be easy to get a full definition if I simply quoted something to you from a lexicon, but I believe that Matthew wants us to see what true repentance is from this text. So, how then does Matthew define the rest of repentance? He defines it by providing us with a negative example in the Pharisees and Sadducees.
As we go along in this book, what we will see is that it is monumentally a scathing critique against the prevailing Jewish powers and leaders of Israel. There is no doubt in the author’s words that Israel has failed, but he attributes much of that failure to the misdirection and mishandling of the truth by those called Pharisees and Sadducees—those tasked with teaching and interpreting Scripture and its laws. Historically, these two parties are actually opposed to one another. But, in Matthew, they are grouped together because in their respective pursuits to use Scripture to their own benefit, they are blinded in their greed to what the Bible actually intends to communicate.
And we get a glimpse of the depth of their reproach here as John, through Matthew’s record of his ministry, confronts these groups as they come to his baptism. Now, the text is not explicit about whether or not these groups have come to observe what’s taking place out of curiosity, to condemn and attempt to discredit John’s ministry out of jealousy for their own authority, or to actually get baptized for the purpose of solidifying their image as the true children of God and to appear before these great crowds as humble, willing followers of the coming Messiah. It’s possible that there was a combination of all of these motives among the Pharisees and Sadducees, but you’ll notice with me that it is likely that none of them are pure.
My take on what these leaders of Israel were doing there is grounded in the last reason I gave—that they were there to actually try and get baptized in order to solidify their image as the true children of God and to appear humble and willing to follow the coming Messiah. And like a true prophet and forerunner, just like what we will see Jesus do to a greater degree in his interactions with Pharisees and Sadducees, John sees and knows exactly who they are. He calls them a ‘brood of vipers,’ which is equivalent to saying that they’re the children and workers of the devil—that great and wicked serpent.
Why does he call them this? It’s the same reason why I think they’ve come to be baptized—it’s because they’re hypocrites and deceivers—they’re feigners of righteousness while wickedness rules their heart. They come as those who lead the way in repentance. But John’s words to them is, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Said another way, “who suggested that you might escape the anger of God? Who told you to leave Jerusalem or your high places? Who told you that you could come and get baptized? Who gave you reason to hear about and participate in this message of repentance when it is obvious, as the leaders and teachers of Scripture, that you desire no part of it?”
See, these are men, according to verse 9, who assume their righteousness and their inheritance not based upon lives of repentance but based upon the purity of their lineage. They think that because they can draw out their descendancy from Abraham—the one in whom the covenant of Israel originated—they are automatically his heirs—as if God’s choice of him automatically included his choice of them.
But implicit in John’s criticism is that in their assumption, they’ve gone on to live terrible lives—something that is confirmed for us throughout the gospels. These men are known for their double standards and their insincerity. And the baptizing prophet stands before them saying that truer children of Abraham can be made of stones than of them. Why? Because they have hearts harder than stone. Hearts that do not think they need anything other than what they already have, nor to be anything else than who they already are.
This is what sin does. It assumes its own righteousness, and it places its trust in man, forgetting altogether that it is God who establishes us. God established Abraham. Abraham, himself, has no implicit authority. God is the author. God is the Almighty. God is the chooser, the covenanter, and, more importantly, for these men, he is their judge. And just as clearly as John can see it in them, God can see that they’ve spent their lives seeking to honour someone who can do nothing for them.
This is why John follows with his question, “who warned you to flee the wrath by coming to be baptized?” Baptism cannot save you. Your namesake cannot save you. Your appearance cannot save you. What saves you is true repentance—a repentance that bears good fruit.
What then is true repentance? It isn’t merely a confession of sin—it isn’t merely dying to self—it’s the confession and acknowledgment of sin that leads to a life in honour of the only one who can do something for us, and who has in fact, done everything for us. It is dying to self in order to live for something more. It is a turning and reorientation away from sinful desires that cannot save towards a God who has come, specifically, to save.
In other words, repentance that leads to more sin and worldliness is not repentance—this was John’s criticism of Israel’s leaders. They were confessing sin and seeking to be baptized not to serve God but to keep their pride—to keep their status—to maintain their authority in the world, while believing that their citizenship in eternity was automatically secure.
But true repentance is synonymous with true belief. True belief is born out in a life that forsakes sin and the world as insufficient and unsatisfying and clings to that which is sufficient, good, holy, and pure. True belief—true repentance—true kingdom citizenship—seeks the honour and pleasure of God over the honour and pleasure of self.
These Pharisees and Sadducces could not repent, and baptism would be meaningless for them, because what they desired was not to forsake their sin for the kingdom of heaven in which the ultimate reward was an eternity with God himself. No, their desire was to secure their position on earth with the added benefit of getting to have the pleasures of heaven if or whenever it came. God, for them, was a genie and not the treasure—the giver of joyful things that would add to their own wealth and not the gift of joy himself that would lead to a life of gratitude and willing sacrifice for the sake of knowing and having more of him.
And it is when we couple these two elements of John’s message—that the kingdom of heaven is near resulting in the need to repent immediately and sincerely—that we need to ask ourselves, “do we anticipate the imminence of God’s coming judgment, do we live in that state of urgency seeking to make sure he’ll deliver us from it, and do we exhibit the requisite level of repentant sincerity that assures us that he will?”
Dare I say that none of us do. Here’s the thing about this story—none of us ought to implicitly assume the identity of those who were truly repenting. All of us, as we unpack this text, are called to reexamine ourselves as those who stand within the lineage of the Pharisees and Sadducees—because as sinners that’s what we are, and we are to hear the imperative as a constant call to reform our lives: make certain that you belong to the kingdom—said differently, in John’s words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near and bear fruit in keeping with that repentance.”
Because a day is coming where we will be standing on the shores of a grander kingdom than that of Jerusalem, Judea, and the surrounding regions of the Jordan, and as we stand on that shore—one who has come before us will look at us, and he will say one of two things as he peers into our hearts. On that day, which of his statements will resonate with you? Will he look at you and say, “You brood of vipers” and cast you into the wilderness to burn, or will he know the depth of your repentance—will he see a heart transformed by the immanency, worthiness, and authority of the King coming in his kingdom—and say, “you good and faithful servant, today you will dwell with me in paradise.”? I pray for your sake and mine that it is the latter, which leads me to my third and final point: make certain to enter into the kingdom by . . .
3) Living Humbly
If you haven’t noticed, Matthew ends our verses quite severely particularly in verses 10 and 12. So imminent is this kingdom, so mighty is the one to whom it belongs, and so weighty will be his judgment upon those who fail to repent that John’s command to us is given new emphasis. Not only will those who fail to repent immediately and sincerely be those who shall face the wrath of an angry God over their arrogance, but that wrath will burn over them in eternity. The word that John uses is unquenchable. Those who do not repent shall be separated from those who are, and there shall be no means of relieving that separation—no means of relieving their suffering.
Yet in this severity, as we reflect upon our disposition to be like the Pharisees and Sadducees, John does not mean to leave us there because in between verses 10 and 12 comes the point of his ministry—to point us to the sovereign one who comes to save those who desire repentance from wickedness and waywardness—from ourselves—and he grants it to them with immeasurable grace. See, repenting is useless unless there is one to answer the plea—and not only must he be able to answer, but he must also be able to deliver. And our deliverer is not only able, but he is incomparably mighty to do so.
Here’s where this text takes a dramatic turn because while John the Baptist’s message is ominous—“even now,” he says, “the axe is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit shall be cut down and thrown into the fire.” One has come in haste and in imminence so that as we are uprooted. And as it is revealed that our roots are rotten, and that we’ve emptied the land of anything useful, the one-who-has-come takes us, and instead of burning us, he replants us where the ground is fertile and the river flows, where our roots might once again grow and go down deep into streams of living water so that we might bear good fruit.
And what we often forget is that he’s able to do this for us because he takes his own tree, he plants it in that place that we were in, which suffers the dry rot and the barrenness that we left behind, and because nothing good remains, the planter is forced inevitably to uproot his prize and his joy and burn it so that all that rottenness might be dealt with and vanquished.
If I can step away from the analogy for a moment, God has done exactly this for us in Jesus. Christ could have come to judge us, but instead he enacts at great cost to himself a gracious delay by dying upon a tree—a cross—for our sins whereby through his death he takes on the punishment and wrath of our evil and in exchange provides to us his righteousness and eternal inheritance. And he does this to magnify God’s loving patience over us, for “the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pt 3:9).
This Christ—this Messiah—this God—the bringer of the kingdom—his sandals we are not worthy to carry, and yet, for us, he bore our life, our tree, our transgressions, our wrath, our death, our burial, our hell, so that in his resurrection, as conqueror over all of these things, we might be purified with his refining fire, counted as citizens of his heaven, and receive his help in the Holy Spirit as a seal forever. Not by our merit. Not by man’s namesake. But by the grace of God gloriously given to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
How, then, will we not humbly respond in repentance when confronted with such grace as soon and as sincerely as we possibly can? Do not delay, dear sinner, because his grace extended to you by that great act upon a cross—that patience will not wait forever. His return shall be imminent. Make certain to enter into the kingdom. Repent for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near and bear fruit in keeping with that repentance.