In our culture many important events and times seem far away in the future. When we are in grade 1 at school, grade 12 and graduation seem so far away in the future. At the beginning of our working careers retirement seems very far away. When children in our lives are infants seeing them as adults seems very far away. When we first buy a house the day when we will finally pay it off seems like forever away.
As we live our day to day lives as Christians, heaven seems far away. Though we know life is short and eternity is long, heaven still seems far away. In a culture like ours where the future seems far away it’s difficult to understand that God says some very important eternal realities are actually very near to us, right here in fact.
While reading through Matthew 3, listen and watch for several very important eternal realities that we often think of as far away but are actually with us right now. Matthew 3 draws us into the life, work, perceptions, commands and prophecies of John the Baptist as he prepares the way for Jesus and meets Him at the Jordan River before Jesus begins His ministry.
Matthew 3:1 Now in those days John the Baptist arrived, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavenshas come near.” 3 For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight!’”
4 Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; 6 and they were being immersed by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for immersion, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. 10 The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “As for me, I immerse you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will immerse you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
13 Then Jesus Himself arrives from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be immersed by him. 14 But John was hindering Him, saying, “I have need to be immersed by You, and do You come to me?” 15 But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he *permits Him. 16 After being immersed, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
We see and hear from John that several eternal realities that seem far away in our culture are actually very near, in fact they are right here in our midst today.
The first words John speaks are, “Repent for the kingdom of the heavens have come near.” John’s command to repent is the second person plural “you.” You all turn your minds to God. Make a conscious decision to come to Him and leave all your sins behind.
Why John? What are you saying is the reason we should do this?
“The kingdom of the heavens has come near.”
The royal reign, the royal power, the royal rule of God the King of heaven and earth Himself has come near to us. The King is here among us reigning in His power and glory.
John says “has come near” with a perfect tense verb. The perfect tense expresses a past action with an abiding result. In English we might say, for example, “It stands written.” Something written in the past is valid today and for the future. In essence, the kingdom of God has come near and is here to stay.
An amazing confirmation of John’s revelation is that in Matthew 4:17 Jesus Himself opens His ministry with these exact same words, “Repent for the kingdom of the heavens have come near.”
I wish translators would simply translate the Bible. John and Jesus throughout Matthew speak of the kingdom of the heavens, plural. This is particularly important to their Jewish listeners and to us. Why? In Jewish cosmology there are three heavens. Paul talks about getting “caught up to the third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12:2.
For Jesus’ and John’s Jewish listeners the first heaven was that immanent immediate heaven around us, the air we breath, the atmosphere. The second was the celestial heavens above us, the sun, moon and stars. The third heaven above all is of course the infinite eternal domain of God.
One of many important and stunning realisations in this phrase “the kingdom of the heavens has come near” is that God is present and sovereign in all three realms. He is right here in our midst every moment. As my grandmother would say, “He’s as close as your breath,” which is right inside you as we will see. He fills the universe and of course the Father and Son reign from their thrones in heaven as well with complete awareness of everything going on in our lives. And profoundly we know that they hear all of our prayers.
Next John speaks specifically to the Pharisees and Sadducees. We see the immediacy of John’s language in his phrases, “the wrath to come” and “the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:7, 10).
Here at the beginning of the New Testament, years ahead of the Apostle John’s reception of the Book of Revelation, John the Baptist uses apocalyptic language and visions notably before Jesus begins His ministry. The imagery of the “axe already laid at the root of the trees” tells us God is present to administer justice without deferring to Judgement Day. If we doubt that God is not deferring justice, we need look no further than His prophesying and bringing about the dissolution of the Roman Empire.
John goes on to say that though he immerses them with water for repentance, Jesus “will immerse you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Profoundly, God comes into our lives, right into the temples of our bodies, by His Holy Spirit. He sanctifies us as fire burns the dross and purifies gold.
Immediately John follows with his apocalyptic vision of Jesus, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
In ancient times oxen would tread grain stalks on threshing floors to loosen the chaff that shielded the kernels of grain. Harvesters then used winnowing forks or winnowing shovels to scoop up the grains and chaff and throw them into the wind. The wind would blow away the chaff. The heavier valuable grains would fall down on to the threshing floor. From there, the valuable grains could be scooped up and placed in their barns for use and safe keeping. John’s vision of course vividly describes Jesus separating His people from His enemies, the chaff.
God places this apocalyptic vision at the beginning of the New Testament before Jesus’ ministry began because He wants us to keep our eyes on the horizon of His eternal glory now. Keeping our eyes on Him and all He has prepared for us will spur us on to prepare for His coming again and living with Him forever.
Notice what happens immediately after John’s vision, “Then Jesus Himself arrives from Galilee…” Then He is immersed by John. God’s Holy Spirit descends as a dove and lighting on Him. Then His Father speaks from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased!”
Father, Son and Spirit arrive. They are present. They have broken into their world in a whole new way and they are here to stay.
A fascinating feature of life in the first-century world is this. The future wasn’t as far away as it is today. People lived with more awareness of their mortality and accepted the brevity of life. There were no guarantees, health insurance plans, thirteen grades of school, graduate degrees, 30 year mortgages, retirement savings plans and pensions all of which make our futures seem far away.
God has come near, very near. Jesus’ Father came very near and spoke from out of the heavens.
Father, Son and Spirit are immanent. Jesus has come near to die for our sins. Jesus and John command us to repent in response. The root words of this command are “with mind.” It is a total conscious reorientation of our thinking and behaviour directing our wholehearted attention, allegiance and obedience to God.
By God’s command we are immersed in water for the forgiveness of our sins (Acts 2:38). We receive His Holy Spirit. He lives in us.
God is both infinite beyond time and present in time. Jesus said the kingdom of God is in your midst. His Spirit lives within everyone in Jesus.
John indeed prepared the way of the Lord and gave us these wonderful visions to help us keep our eyes on Jesus and the horizon of God’s glory.
Thanks to Jesus and John, one of the greatest blessings of living in the last days is that we can constantly turn our minds, hearts and lives toward God who is with us. We know with confidence “the kingdom of the heavens has come near.”