The Kingdom of Heaven is the rule and reign of God on earth, and this is what God is building among us.
Matthew teaches us that this King and his Kingdom have come and are coming. Thirty-two times in Matthew’s gospel, he uses the term “Kingdom of Heaven.” That’s his working theme as he shares the story of Jesus with the Jewish world in the first century. They were looking for a Messiah and Matthew tells them that in Jesus, that Messiah has come, bringing healing and forgiveness. In Jesus, death has been defeated, and that message is now the hope of the whole world.
This is the message of the Kingdom of God, and this is the message John the Baptist came preaching. This is the Kingdom he called people to get ready for. David Platt says, “If this Jesus is the King of all history, then it follows that He should be the King of your life. When you realize His rule and submit to His reign, it changes everything about how you live.”
In 2012, I went to India to preach the good news about Jesus Christ. We preached in little villages and under tents and one night in the middle of a bug-saturated street. We preached a message about this consuming fire of a God who wants our total allegiance. We preached about the exclusive nature of God, that he doesn’t want to share space in a heart with other gods or other interests. We told crowd after crowd of hungry souls that it can’t be “Jesus Plus.” To work, it has to be Christ alone. Night after night, we asked if there was anyone ready to give their exclusive allegiance to this God above all other gods. We challenged them: anyone responding must make a totally counter-cultural choice to reject thousands of Hindu idols in favor of the one, true God, who has revealed himself through Jesus Christ. Over the course of twelve days, hundreds of people said yes to that challenge.
And I was just one voice calling out in a few villages in a country of more than a billion people. But there are literally hundreds of thousands of “John the Baptists” in India, preaching and teaching the Word of God in thousands of little villages and under countless tents and in little hole-in-the-wall buildings. And through those voices, one by one, the Kingdom of God is being built in India. Sparks are flying all over India! Every person who claims Christ alone is like a spark and every preacher who cries out in the wilderness is like a spark, and one day, all those sparks will start a fire that will consume that country and eventually, the world.
Do you believe that?
If the witness of scripture is true, then this is how the Kingdom of Heaven comes. It is like preaching in the wilderness, like a voice calling out in a desert. Jesus says it is like a mustard seed that someone plants in a garden. It is the smallest of all seeds, but against all odds it becomes the largest tree in the garden and a place for birds to nest.
This is how the Kingdom message was first proclaimed. In a few words … in a line. In these verses, Matthew gives us the message and the means of the gospel. The means, as we’ve discovered already, is counter-intuitive; the message is repentance. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” This is the message John came preaching and it is the message Jesus came preaching. Repent. Change. Reorient toward God. The Kingdom is at hand, is coming, is near!
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:1-6).
The Kingdom message is first of all an invitation: Repent.
Repentance is me exchanging how I’ve done it for a different way. It is me course-correcting, exchanging one path for another one that heads more directly into the heart of Jesus. N. T. Wright says it this way: “Repentance is a complete and lasting change of heart and life.”
This is how we prepare the road that leads from my heart to the heart of Jesus, the King. It is a spiritual exchange – exchanging the Kingdom of Self for the Kingdom of Heaven. Angel Davis teaches us that the Kingdom of Self is small and limited and focused on my personal feelings and happiness. It is very much based on my desire for control. In the Kingdom of Self, “self” reigns and God is dethroned. The Kingdom of Heaven, on the other hand, is big, hopeful, and focused on God’s truth and God’s pleasure. In the Kingdom of Heaven, God reigns and self surrenders.
Repentance means exchanging the Kingdom of Self for the Kingdom of God.
Pick a behavior. Pick something you’re not particularly proud of, like what you say on Facebook after a frustrating day, or how you act when you first wake up or how you respond to things you don’t understand. Now, ask yourself, “Is my approach small and limited? Do I default to pessimism or paranoia? Am I focused here on my personal feelings or happiness? Do I get quickly agitated when I cannot control this situation/ person/ habit?” If so, maybe this is the place of repentance for me. Maybe this is a thing for me to surrender.
Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings but on God and His Kingdom. God reigns and I surrender; surrender is the posture of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is my right response to the invitation to repent.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:7-12)
The Kingdom of Heaven is also an invitation to be baptized. To link baptism with repentance was an oddity, by Pharisee standards. The Pharisees weren’t often the kind to get baptized, certainly not for repentance’ sake. After all, to do so would be to admit they’d failed at a rule or two. To these people who thought they were pure, John preached a message of repentance, using two images: the fire and the axe. The axe is what cuts away anything that isn’t bearing fruit. And John says the axe is laid at the root of the tree. Not the branches, but the root! He was calling people to start over, to be born again. To come and die.
Fire is mentioned three times in this passage. All three times, it is a reference for clearing the way. If a king is coming into the wilderness and you want to make a road for him, you’d use fire to burn away the scrub and make a road. Jesus used fire to talk about burning the trash after you separate the wheat from the chaff. You keep what’s good and burn the rest. This is how the Kingdom gets built in us.
John was preaching a new thing, challenging his audience not to tweak or adjust, but to come and die … to do a new thing.
There is an invitation, an initiation and now an invocation to be filled, linking spiritual renewal to the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17).
Now, the plot twists. John finds himself surprised by Jesus’ desire to be baptized. Isn’t baptism only for those who need to repent? A Messiah should not need to repent! Especially not out here in the open, in front of religious people who care a lot about the appearance of things.
But Jesus insists. In N.T. Wright’s translation, his response to John reads this way: “This is how it’s got to be right now. This is the right way for us to complete God’s whole saving plan.” Jesus now links repentance with God’s saving plan, then links the Messiah with those who need to repent. God’s plan is to save sinners, so by being baptized Jesus identifies himself with sinners. Jesus stands in this moment as an act of supreme obedience. This is how it is done in Kingdom: Surrender is the posture of the Kingdom of God.
What happens next is beautiful. When Jesus comes up out of the water, all of God is there. Father, Son and Holy Spirit … all there. The Son is on earth being buried by the water, then raised up, identifying completely with this Kingdom call to come and die. The Spirit is hovering dove-like above the Son, defining the character of the King and his Kingdom. This isn’t a warrior but a dove, a sign of hope and peace. The dove, which in the flood story found signs of life when it looked as if all life was dead and buried.
And the Father is speaking the blessing that sends his Son out into Kingdom purposes. With this blessing, he teaches us that effective, fruitful ministry isn’t motivated by my need but by God’s love. My call isn’t empowered by my steam but by the Holy Spirit.
Here in this scene we are given a gift. We’re shown what a good baptism does for us. It kills everything in us that won’t live in the Kingdom and it surrounds us with the love of God. It fills us with the Holy Spirit. Baptism matters in the Kingdom of God because it is the essence of surrender. This is what it means to come and die.
The road that leads into the Kingdom of Heaven runs through fire and axes and water. That road invites us to separate the Kingdom of Self from the Kingdom of God – to let go of things that have no Kingdom value and clear a road for Jesus to come in.
Are you ready to come and die? To do a new thing? To become a new thing?