Matthew 3:1-12

Malachi chapter three, verse one, says, “Behold I send My Messenger, and he shall prepare the way before Me; and the Lord, Whom you seek, shall suddenly come into His temple.”

Later on, in chapter four verse five, we read this:  “Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the lord.”  As we’ll see in a few minutes, John the Baptizer took on the calling and the message and the appearance of Elijah the prophet, and he did prophesy and signify the dreadful Day of the Lord.

The son of Zacharias the priest and Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, became the last feiry Old Testament prophet.  His calling was short – his message from God very specific – he was called the greatest of all the prophets – and he was treated in the same way the leaders of Israel had treated all of God’s prophets who called for repentance – they killed him.  And he became the first New Testament martyr for the sake of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom.

This is the one, as Luke records, who was filled with the Holy Spirit and leapt in his mother’s womb at the presence of the yet unborn Lord Jesus.  And, as is the case with Jesus, we know little, if anything, about his early life – until he burst upon the scene, as verse one says, “In those days…”, and began publicly preaching.

The text indicates that he was preaching in the desert, or the wilderness of Judea.  Now, since it wouldn’t have done any good to preach to no one, out in the wilderness, it is assumed that he went into the cities such as Jerusalem, and into the towns and villages of Judea around the Jordan River, preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of he heaves is at hand,” as verse two says.  And then retired to the uninhabited areas around the river to continue preaching – and to baptize.  As we’ll see when we come to verse five, the people were then coming out to him.

But when John came upon the scene, he had on the rough, hairy mantle similar to the one Elijah had when he folded it and slapped the Jordan River with it.  The waters parted so that he and Elisha could cross.

Important also to the later verses in this passage is the incident in which Elijah called down fire from heaven upon the soldiers of the idolatrous Ahaziah – monarch of the northern kingdom of Israel.  And it was a chariot of fire that parted Elijah and Elisha before Elijah was taken up into heaven in a maelstrom – or a whirlwind.

And Elijah wore a belt of animal skin which went around his waist and loins.  So did John the Baptist.  Elijah ate locusts and wild honey.  So did John the Baptist.  Elijah spoke the words of God to an idolatrous nation.  So did John the Baptist.  Elijah called down fire from heaven, and so did John the Baptist, in verse twelve. 

This John was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke, recorded in chapter forty, and here quoted by Matthew in verse three….  And please let me read it to you how it probably ought to be read... “A voice of one crying ‘prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness.  Make His highways straight!’”

Now, the way I’ve written it for you on the separate sheet is the way it’s interpreted by most of the versions.  But there is reason to believe that this crying out – or proclaiming a message – isn’t being done in the wilderness, but that the “way” of the Lord should be prepared in the wilderness.  As I said before, what good would it be to preach in the middle of a desert with no one to hear?  In addition, there are grammatical and technical reasons as to why the wilderness might not refer at all to “crying out”.  And, lastly, there are theological reasons as to why the highways are made straight into the wildernesses of the world.  The Gentile nations are about to be brought in.

Those who are high are about to be brought low – and the low ones are to be lifted up.  And the love of God extended towards us Gentiles.  And there was a voice crying – it was the voice of John the Baptizer.  And he was making the highways straight, and preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness.

His Kingdom was at hand.  The glory of the Lord was about to be revealed, and all flesh would see it together.  The mouth of the Lord had spoken it.  All the prophets had prophesied it, and it was at hand.  The forerunner of the Anointed One had arrived and he was preaching repentance – as all the spokesmen for God had done.

God had touched the lips of many men, and they had received the mantle of the prophet and had girded their loins; and they had gone to speak the Words of God to the leaders of God’s people.  They cried out the message of God again and again, and they lamented the iniquity of the nation, prophesied its destruction, and looked forward to the kingdom and its King!

And John the Baptizer was the last of these and the immediate forerunner of the King Himself Who would do all that God had said through the prophets.  And John preached repentance, announced the imminent arrival of the King, baptized the people and prophesied the destruction of the old order.

Now, the preaching and baptizing of John is considerably different from what is normally heard from pulpits and what is generally read in books.  His preaching is the Gospel of the Kingdom of the heavens; it is a Gospel of repentance; it is a Gospel of baptism; it is a Gospel of destruction and laying waste and cutting; it is a Gospel of wind and fire and wrath; and it is an eternal Gospel of peace for the nations in submission to the King.  And it is the same Gospel which our Lord Jesus Christ preached, as recorded in the first chapter of Mark: 

“And after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, and saying:  ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.’”


And it is the same Gospel that the apostle John writes in Revelation, as he says,

“And I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, having an eternal Gospel to preach to those who sit over the land, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice ‘Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him Who made the heaven and the sea and the sea and springs of water.’”


Now, first, as we begin to look at the specifics of John’s Gospel, in verse two, we see the term “the Kingdom of the heavens.”  “Repent,” he says, “for the Kingdom of the heavens is at hand.”  There is the perception among Christians that the Kingdom is of heaven, and that the heaven mentioned here is somewhere other than in creation, and that God sits on His throne someplace else in the universe – and that’s where His Kingdom is.  In heaven.  And that individual souls, as they believe in Christ are somehow deposited there, and the Kingdom grows.

But, looking at the text, you see that John has specifically made the word “heaven” a plural – the heavens.  And from this we know that a specific place called “heaven” is not what he’s preaching in the Gospel.  The Kingdom of the heavens is at hand.

As we look into the Scriptures, we find the Bible speaking of the space around us as being heaven:  The space above us as being heaven; the space far above, where the stars are, as being heaven; The Garden of Eden is referred to as heaven and earth; and the new Kingdom including the Gentile nations is called the new heavens and the new earth.

John’s language here indicates the incorporation of all creation.  The heavens!  Not some ethereal location which comes close to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.  That’s mystical theology.  But the Lord Jesus Christ has come to reclaim the totality of creation for his Father.  “Repent, for the Kingdom of the heavens is at hand!”  Warning!  The King is at hand!  And he has come to do His Father’s will, as expressed in the words of the prophets.

Now, before dealing with John’s word “repent,” I want to take you through the rest of these verses and briefly comment on them, and then we’ll come back to it.

In verses five and six, we can see the response to John’s preaching. 

“Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan, and they were being baptized of him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.” 


It’s obvious that every person in Judea didn’t go out to be baptized.  There would have been hundreds of thousands of them.  What this means is that people from every area went out, as a result of the preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom, in order to be baptized of John.

Then John sees, verse seven, many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism.  These are the leaders of the nation, the teachers, the priests, the scribes, the lawmakers, the shepherds!  The Sanhedrin!  Here is a man of God in a rough, camel’s hair mantle (indicating mourning over national apostasy) preaching the Kingdom of the heavens being at hand, and the very fathers of that apostasy, the covenant heads of the people, are going out to his baptism!

And right here we have to look at John’s baptism, because it’s the key to the understanding of this passage, and a key to understanding of John the Baptist, and a key to the in-depth understanding of the Kingdom.  Baptism is not just an installation into Church membership, although that concept is certainly supported by Scripture.  And it isn’t just a symbolic seal of God’s covenant of grace, as our Westminster standards say, although it certainly is that!  And it is not just a sign of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s elect, although it most assuredly is that.

But baptism is also a sign of Christ’s redemptive judgment.  You see, since baptism is the sign and seal of the covenant, then it must be the comprehensive symbol of the eschatological judgment that consummates that covenant.

Remember the passage from Malachi that I read at the beginning?  “Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful Day of the Lord.”  John the Baptist was a precursor of “the great and terrible Day of the Lord.”  His mission was to be one of warning, for at His advent, the Lord would refine His people by judgment. 

John’s role was that of messenger of the covenant to declare the Lord’s ultimatum of eschatological judgment.  This was a covenantal crisis long in the making.  And the voice cried out, “Repent, for the Kingdom of the heavens is at hand!”

It warned of the wrath to come.  Verse seven.  It warned of the vanity of reliance on external earthly relationships, even descent from Abraham.  Verse nine.  If the trees didn’t bring forth satisfactory fruit, then they must be cursed as a cumbrance to the ground and cut off – and Israel would be made the desert wasteland.  The axe was even now “laid unto the root” to inflict the judgment of cutting off. 

Verse ten.  And John’s water baptism symbolized and dramatized the dominant theme in his proclamation – namely, the impending judicial ordeal which would discriminate and separate between the chaff and wheat, rendering a verdict of acceptance but also of rejection. 

Verse twelve.  And truly, as John warned the leaders of Israel in verse eleven, the Lord Jesus Christ, the resurrected Son of God with Power, did, indeed, baptize the nation of Israel with holy wind and fire in the wrath of His mighty power. 

And it was the baptism of John that was the sign of the judicial termination of the nation.  The demand which John brought to Israel was focused in his call to baptism.  And this baptism wasn’t an ordinance to be observed by Israel in all their generations, but a special sign for that terminal generation which signified their being cursed and cast off – a remnant only being accepted, according to Paul in Romans chapter eleven.

The sanctuary, the city and the nation were destroyed, and the end of it was a flood – a pouring out of desolation in wind and fire.  And to this overflowing wrath the waters of John’s baptism had pointed.  And it is not insignificant that the flood of Noah is called the cutting off curse of the covenant.  And John’s baptism was, in effect, a recircumcising, a cutting off of God’s Own covenant-breaking nation.  John’s water baptism was a sign of the inundation to come.

Now, the differences between John’s baptism and the baptism of believers in the New Covenant, we’ll say more about next Lord’s Day, since the text concerns the baptism of Jesus.  And then there will be more to say when we preach through chapter eleven, which includes the imprisonment and beheading of John the Baptist.  Suffice it to say that the ultimatum to Israel from God was rejected at that point, and the sanctions of the lawsuit against Israel were carried out.

But I will say this today – that there are many similarities between the baptism of John and the sign and seal of the New Covenant.  One of those similarities is the fact that baptism is both a seal of the eternal remission of sin, and, at the same time, a seal of coming Messianic judgment.  That’s true for both the baptism of John and New Covenant baptism.

In both cases the command for repentance is a call to the marriage feast of the lamb.  And in both cases baptism is a seal of the remission of sin.  But, also in both cases, baptism is a seal of cursing and cutting off.

Many of the Jews who were baptized of John were winnowed out on the threshing floor and cast into unquenchable fire (verse twelve), receiving, as prophesied by the prophets, a double portion of the wrath of God; their judgment potentiated by having received the sign and seal of God’s covenant.

And Christian baptism is no different!  Baptism is the oath-sign of the New Covenant!  It is a gracious and loving seal from God of the eternal Gospel and the remission of sin, accomplished by Jesus Christ in His suffering and death and resurrection!  But those receiving that who will not repent and believe in the eternal Gospel will receive a double portion of the wrath and anger of God, that wrath potentiated by having the seal of God’s love on the bodies of those who are not His!  To unbelievers it becomes the sign of a covenant lawsuit!

Why is that the case?  Because the blessing of the elect of God arises only out of their Savior’s accursed death.  And the sign of His Son’s death upon the body of one who isn’t His is a hypocritical lie!  Just as the Pharisees and Sadducees receiving baptism was a lie!

The result of which, for those in Christian churches today, having not repented of sin, yet having the sign and seal of the eternal Gospel upon their bodies, stand at great risk of a double portion of the wrath of God, the Christ, the Spirit, the written Word and the sign and seal of the covenant.

John’s Gospel was, “Repent, for the Kingdom of the heavens is at hand.”  Receive the sign and seal of God’s Covenant.  And produce fruit appropriate for repentance.

The Gospel now is almost exactly the same.  Repent, for the Kingdom of the heavens is come. Repent for the remission of sin, and receive the sign and seal of the covenant of God; and produce fruit appropriate for repentance.

As the text says in verse nine, God is able to raise up children unto Abraham from stones.  From the dead, stoney hearts of the Gentiles.  But the Gospel must be preached!  And wherever it is preached, men must repent.  For the Lord Jesus Christ still stands on His threshing floor with a winnowing fork in His hand.  And as the Mighty Wind of God separates the wheat from the chaff, it is the ones who have repented and produced fruit appropriate for repentance who will be accepted into His eternal granary.  And the chaff will be rejected and thrown into inextinguishable fire.

And it will be the ones who confessed their sin and received the sign of God’s covenant, but produced no fruit appropriate for repentance, who will be cut off, and receive a double portion of the wrath of God!

There is no one here today who has not received the sign and seal of God’s covenant.  And there are many in our sister churches having that mark upon their bodies.  And God sees His mark.  If there has been no repentance and the fruit equal to, or appropriate for, repentance, then there’s a lawsuit pending against you.

Turn – for the remission of sin, and believe the eternal Gospel.  And produce the fruit which is inevitable and appropriate for that repentance – for the fruit evidences life from the dead.  Fruit evidences that a child has been raised up unto Abraham from the stone.