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Author:Rev. Todd Bordow
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Congregation:Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church
 Fort Worth, Texas
Title:The Herald and His Message
Text:Matthew 3:1-12 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Calling

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Todd Bordow, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

The people of the ancient world were quite familiar with heralds. Caesar Tiberius would send his herald to a new territory Rome was intending to conquer. The king's herald announced the coming of the emperor's army; he warned the people to submit to the king or face the consequences. The herald spoke with full authority of the king; the herald carried the king's emblem so all could see his importance.

During the reign of Tiberius, the Bible draws our attention to a different herald. This herald is not dressed in regal clothes; he has no army following him. He is a rather poor man residing in the far off desert of Judea. The question was, what king was this man heralding? And if this king has no armies, what kind of a kingdom was he bringing?

Now if you wanted to gain a following for your king, why not make the announcement in Jerusalem; the cultural and religious center of Israel? Why announce the king's arrival in the desert?

In the Old Testament, the desert was the symbol of God's curse. Why would a king appear in a lonely, cursed place? What do you learn about the ministry of Christ when you consider the place he chose to announce his kingdom?

The Lord's entrance into his ministry parallels his entrance into this world. He was born almost unnoticed in the lowly village of Bethlehem. When Jesus began his ministry John announced him without fanfare in the desert of Judea.

Now John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. The Old Testament promised that God himself would come down as king and establish a righteous, everlasting kingdom. The Book of Isaiah prophesied that God would first send a herald to announce the coming of the king and his kingdom. The prophet Malachi described this herald as another Elijah.

Matthew assures you that John the Baptist is the herald predicted in the Old Testament. By quoting Isaiah, Matthew demonstrates that John is the forerunner of Jesus, and that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophecies in the Old Testament.

Matthew connects John the Baptist with Elijah in the description of John's clothing in verse 4. John wore the same kind of clothing that Elijah wore. Elijah announced judgment to Israel. On Mt. Carmel Elijah pronounced a separation between those served the Lord and those who served Baal. In the same way John announces a coming separation between the believer and the wicked.

John's message can be summarized in one statement, found in verse 2: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. God had come to establish a world-wide kingdom; a kingdom of that would never end. God had come to establish the kingdom of heaven. The Old Testament kingdom of Israel was only a picture of God's eternal kingdom to come. Now it was time for the picture to step aside; the reality has arrived.

So how does John command people to receive the king from heaven? One word; repent. The kingdom of heaven is a righteous and holy kingdom. Who can dare stand before the king of heaven? Who can dare claim they are worthy to be given access to this kingdom?

There is only one proper response to the news that God has come as the king; throw yourself on his mercy. You are sinners. In the presence of the holy king you are nothing. John is saying, if God is going to allow you into his kingdom, it will not be because he is impressed with your righteousness. Your righteousness is as filthy rags in his sight. John is calling all men everywhere to repent and trust in Christ alone for salvation.

Now when Israel was about to approach God on Mount Sinai, there were first told to wash themselves. This washing was symbolic of their need for cleansing from sin before they stood in God's presence. In the same way, when the Son of God is about to appear, John instructs Israel to wash themselves. Like the washing at Mt. Sinai, John's baptism served as a symbol of our need for cleansing to stand in God's presence.

Now you might be encouraged at first by the Israelites' response to John. Israelites came from all over to confess their sins and be baptized. At first glance it seems the whole nation was ready to receive the king. But you must be careful.

First of all, remember this was the time of great expectation. God had not spoken through a prophet in over 400 years. The Israelites expected that the Messiah would soon come and free Israel from Roman rule; the Messiah would make Israel prosperous, and they would rule over the Gentiles. But how would the Israelites respond when they learned that Jesus had not come to establish the type of kingdom they were expecting?

But are they all not confessing their sins? Are they all not repenting? Well, the Pharisees themselves taught the need for confession. The problem was that the Pharisees considered confession a work that in itself pleased God. Confession proved that they weren't as bad as the heathen.

It is similar to the Roman Catholic who confesses his sins to a priest twice a year just to stay in God's good graces. Just because the Israelites were confessing their sins doesn't mean that they truly wanted Jesus. Many people make a showing of confessing their sins, but ultimately they do so only to impress God and assuage their conscience.

Finally, we should be wary of John's popularity because Jesus himself received the same response when he began his ministry. Israelites from all over came and followed him. But as he spoke of the nature of his kingdom, many were disappointed and turned away.

The life of John himself is a warning that the kingdom is not what the Israelites were expecting. If you were the herald of Emperor Tiberius, you dressed and lived in a way that represented Tiberius. What does it tell you that the herald of the Lord lived a life of suffering in the desert? John's lowly life prepares us to expect a suffering, lowly king. This king would not grant us all we desire on earth. This king will give his subjects eternal life.

Well, it wasn't long before Jerusalem sent some official representatives to check John out. Representatives of the Pharisees and Saducees arrived to see if John was truly the herald the OT promised. Some of your translations suggest that John baptized these leaders. But the King James is better, translating it more literally; they came to his baptism. They came to observe his baptism. After all, they really didn't need John's baptism; they were the righteous leaders of Israel.

But John says to them, you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee the wrath to come. You bunch of hypocritical snakes. Your are not here to flee God's wrath. You do not fear God's wrath at all. These leaders actually expected the Messiah to give them high positions in his kingdom.

These religious leaders must have been in shock when John addressed them. He spoke to them the way Elijah had spoken to the prophets of Baal! But the leaders might respond, we have confessed our sins, we have tried to obey the Law - why are we not worthy to be in this kingdom? John's response - your confession was just another proud attempt to impress God. If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, humble yourselves, and bear fruit that demonstrates you have truly repented.

How ironic that John challenges them to bear fruit to demonstrate that their repentance was sincere. John, how dare you suggest that we have not already done good works! We do good works every day - we are holier than most people in Israel.

Can you imagine how uncomfortable the people were listening to this conversation? John, you are supposed to be for the Israelites and against the Romans. Why are you speaking to our leaders this way?

In v. 9 we see that John knew exactly what these Jewish leaders are thinking. Do not think that because Abraham is your father that you are God's favorites; that he would never pour out his wrath on you. Your nationality may have given you privileges in Old Testament Israel, but your nationality means nothing in heaven.

As a matter of fact, God is able to raise up children of Abraham from these stones. We should see an allusion here to the Gentiles. If you Jews refuse to repent, if you trust in your nationality to escape God's wrath, God will raise up citizens of heaven from elsewhere. Paul will say later that the true children of Abrahamâ?¦the true Israel... are those who have believed in Christ; who have humbled themselves and trusted in Jesus to save them.

Now the Old Testament prophesied that when the king comes he would separate the righteous from the wicked. The Jews understood this as a distinction between them and the Gentiles. But John blows that whole line of thinking out of the water. John pronounces judgment on the most religious people in Israel, the Saducees and Pharisees. The message to the rest was clear enough. If the good works and law-keeping of the Pharisees did not enable them to escape God's wrath, how can we escape it; how will we be included with the righteous?

John will point to Christ as the only Lamb of God who would be slain for our sins. Our only hope is that the king has mercy on us and takes away the punishment we deserve. Through our repentance we are throwing ourselves on the mercy of Christ.

Because Israel as a whole turned from God, John announces in v. 10 that the ax of judgment is ready to chop down the tree that does not bear good fruit. This would be applied to the nation Israel in 70 AD, when the Lord destroyed Jerusalem.

John announces that the king is coming to divide people into two kingdoms; the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of Satan; the righteous and the wicked. But how would this king make such a division?

John's answer; this division will occur on the inside of man. Jesus, by his Spirit - will make an inward separation. I baptize you only with physical water. This water cannot cleanse you from sin - it is only a picture. But the king is coming - he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

John employs the picture of a farmer using a winnowing fan to toss the wheat in the air. The wind comes and blows away the chaff, leaving only the wheat. The baptism of Jesus referred to here is not water baptism. John is referring to the work of God's Spirit to either cast out people from his kingdom or bring them in. Rebellious Israel was about to be cast out. Those who humble themselves and fall upon Christ's mercy will be brought in.

And so John's warning is both good news and bad news. To those who do not humble themselves, for those who think they are righteous enough to enter heaven, the king comes to separate them from his heavenly people.

But for those who humble themselves and plead for salvation, God's Spirit will come cleanse you from sin. His Spirit will wash all of your sins away because Jesus would take your sins upon himself.

But we see that the kingdom of heaven for now is a kingdom that comes to the inner man. There is no physical distinction between the righteous and the wicked. But when Christ returns his kingdom will have a physical separation; the kingdoms of heaven and well will be in two separate, eternal places.

We see here that the kingdom of heaven makes no distinction between Jew and Gentile, man or woman, rich or poor. The kingdom of heaven is calling out to the worst of sinners to come and find salvation completely in Jesus.

Before we close, we must consider John's own example of a Christian in v. 11. Very simply, John is an example because John considers himself nothing; he wants no attention; instead he gives all glory to Jesus Christ. The repentance that first responded to the gospel is a repentance that characterizes the whole Christian life.

John could have considered himself fairly special. After all, he was the herald of the king of kings. Surely there was some room for boasting. But a true believer thinks nothing of himself or his works before God, even after he is redeemed. John diverts all attention from himself to Christ.

He is mightier than I, and I am not even worthy to carry his sandals. I am not even worthy to be his slave. I am nothing. John is renouncing all boasting in his nationality, in his ministry, in his good works, even in his sufferings for Christ.

John's only boast is in Jesus Christ and his all-sufficient grace, and his all-sufficient merit as his Savior. How easy it is for us to thank God for our salvation, but then turn around and boast in our works as Christians. John will have none of that. Let us follow John by living a life of humility, confessing our sins to God and others, and boasting only in the Lord, who because of his mercy saved us from sin and gave us the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Todd Bordow, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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(c) Copyright 2003, Rev. Todd Bordow

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