Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"JOHN STRESSES THAT THE COMING JESUS IS GOD."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 24:1,5 (Profession of Faith)
Psalm 134:3 (Ordination)
Psalm 7:4 & Hymn 44:2
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Four young people today profess faith in Jesus Christ. Who is this Jesus Christ these young people wish to serve? Four office-bearers retire from an office given by Jesus Christ; Christ calls four new brothers to carry on with their work. Who is this Jesus Christ who calls to office? Next Sunday Jesus Christ calls all who have professed the faith to eat and drink with Him at His table. Who is this Jesus Christ?
The preaching of John the Baptist was focused on Jesus Christ. Specifically, he sought to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming to Israel. So John had to take seriously who Jesus Christ is. According to John, who was He? John, brothers and sisters, insists that He’s none other than the Lord God! That’s why His coming demanded repentance – and His presence with us still demands that repentance.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
JOHN STRESSES THAT THE COMING JESUS IS GOD.
1. The exalted identity of the Coming One
The Holy Spirit tells us in vs 1 that John the Baptist came "preaching." The theme of his preaching is caught in the words of our text: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
The Bible uses various words for ‘preaching’, each with their own color. The word Matthew uses to describe John’s work means literally ‘to herald’. That term is designed to conjure up in the mind of Matthew’s readers the image of a crier who tells the community that a dignitary is coming. It happens in our day through the media. If the Prime Minister were to come to Kelmscott, the media will tell the locals, so that we have time to make the necessary preparations. Society in John’s day did not have the media we have, and so a crier was appointed who would walk the streets of town announcing over and over again that his highness the Prime Minister was coming to town. By definition, the crier drew attention not to himself but to the person coming after him (cf vs 11).
John’s cry was that "the kingdom of heaven" is coming. The phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ describes a government whose headquarters are in heaven. The cry is based on Old Testament prophecy. Daniel, for example, had said of God Most High that "His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom" (4:3), and "the Most High rules in the kingdom of men" (4:17, 25). When John now says that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" he announces to one and all that heaven is going to take obvious control of earth. Not that heaven did not control earth before (God did, for He’s an eternal king), but the point is that now His sovereignty over earth would be carried out in a more obvious manner.
How will men see that God Most High rules on earth? The Holy Spirit draws that out with the material of vs 3. For the Spirit adds these words, "This is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah," and there follows those familiar words of Is 40. To appreciate why the Holy Spirit quotes these words as an explanation for John’s preaching, we need to go for a moment to the prophecy of Isaiah.
The background of Is 40 is the exile of the people of Israel in Babylon. That exile had occurred because God’s covenant people had embraced sin and rejected admonition (cf II Chron 36:15ff).
But see, while the people in exile groan under the burden of God’s heavy penalty on their sins, the prophet must say, "Comfort, yes, comfort My people!" says your God (vs 1). Israel in exile is told that her warfare is ended, her iniquity pardoned!
How is it possible that this oppressed, sin-filled people can be pardoned? Isaiah tells the people that God is coming to His own. Vs 3: "Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God." That is, God Himself, the God of the covenant, is coming to His people-in-exile! Vs 10: "Behold, the Lord God shall come…." He’s no small God either. In vss 12ff Isaiah tells the exiles that the Coming One "has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand," has "measured heaven with a span And calculated the dust of the earth with a measure," has "weighed the mountains in scales And the hills in a balance." Imagine it: measured the waters off Rottnest in the palm of His hand! Measured the distance to the Milky Way with the span of His hand! And "the nations," Isaiah continues, Babylon included! "are as a drop in a bucket" (vw 15). This is the Almighty, who "sits above the circle of the earth And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers" (vs 22), who calls out the stars by name (vs 26). What an incredibly majestic God this is! This, Isaiah may say, is the One who comes to Israel in exile!
Should the exiles cringe at the message, shrink in terror that such a God is coming? No, they should not, for this Coming One has first spoken the words of vs 1: "Comfort, yes, comfort My people," tell her that "her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned" (vs 2). Hence the instruction of vs 9: "be not afraid." In fact, the One who comes with such a strong arm will –says the prophet in vs 11- "gather the lambs with His arm, And carry them in His bosom, And gently lead those who are with young" (vs 11). This God of awesome power will come with tender care. Vs 29: "He gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength."
Yet the coming of this mighty and merciful God does not mean that the exiles have no responsibility. That’s the point of Is 40:3. The people in the wilderness of their exile need to make it their business to "prepare the way of the Lord." But how they’re to prepare His way is not explained in Is 40. The people in exile are broken, helpless, and so the emphasis lies completely on the gospel of Who is coming: the Lord Himself, the Almighty and merciful God of the covenant.
We understand: how encouraging this prophecy from Isaiah for the oppressed exiles in Babylon! Did it make sense in the hopelessness of exile to trust in the Lord? Did it make sense to profess faith in Him, take up the office of leadership from God among such a demoralized nation? If God were a different God than He revealed Himself to be in Is 40, it indeed made no sense to serve Him. But given who God revealed Himself to be, it certainly made all the sense in the world!
This encouraging chapter, brothers and sisters, is the material from which the Holy Spirit draws His quote when He explains to us the preaching of John the Baptist. "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," John says, and the Holy Spirit explains this for us by referring to Is 40, referring to the almighty God of heaven and earth who comes to His people in the time of their exile. He comes to His oppressed people, comes with great authority and power –He sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers!- and comes also with infinite mercy; He gathers the lambs with His arms, because their iniquity is pardoned. The "kingdom of heaven is at hand," says John, and that to say that the almighty and merciful God of Isaiah 40 is making His dominion felt concretely on earth.
What is the identity, then, of the One coming after John? The quote from Is 40, brothers and sisters, impresses upon John’s hearers that the One coming after John –Jesus of Nazareth- is none else than the Lord God! He who comes is the almighty and merciful God-of-the-covenant. And see, when Jesus began His ministry, He cast out the demons, healed the sick, bad storms be still. Almighty He was, and merciful, for the enormous benefit of His people. More, on the cross He bore bear the wrath of God against sin, gave Himself sovereignly to death and on the third day arose from the dead; behold His sovereignty! And He did it all for our sake; behold His mercy! See there your God!
Who is this Christ, young people, in whom you profess your faith today? Who is the Christ, brothers, who calls you to labor among His flock? Who is the Christ, congregation, who calls you to sit at table with Him next week? According to John, beloved, this Christ is none other than the Coming One of Isaiah 40! The God you want to serve, Tish, Jeremy, Robert, Michael, is the Almighty ruler of heaven and earth – to whom the nations are but "dust on the scales," yet He "gathers the lambs with His arm." The God who calls you to office, brothers Bergsma, Schoof, vanderLecq, vanderPlas, is the God in whose eyes earth’s "inhabitants are like grasshoppers," and yet He carries His lambs in His bosom. You may be apprehensive to commit yourself to Him, apprehensive to take up the office to which He has called. But remember this: given His identity –your covenant God so sovereign and yet so merciful- will not fail you in any circumstance. Count on it, young people, count on it, brothers, His sovereign, caring arms will protect you from every danger, supply your every need.
We come to our second point:
2. The required response to the Coming One.
John must herald the coming of the kingdom of heaven, the coming of the Lord God, Jesus Christ. Since the Coming Christ is God Himself –sovereign, merciful- it follows that certain preparations must be made before His arrival. Isaiah had not been specific in what the necessary preparations had to be in his day, but John the Baptist certainly was specific. "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," he proclaimed, and therefore: "Repent!"
"Repent," says the preacher. The term used in the Greek refers to the mind, and then specifically to a change of mind. That’s what John commands: the attitude of the people, the mind of the people of his day needs to be changed, and it’s the people’s own responsibility to make sure the change happens.
What sort of change in mind is required? What is this change to look like? John’s preaching, congregation, did not occur with his voice alone, but also with his conduct and the way he dressed. It’s remarkable first of all that John as a herald did not go to the people, but stayed "in the wilderness of Judea." Yet his preaching reached all the people, for (vs 5) "Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him." He stayed in the desert on purpose, away from the luxuries of life. Further, he dressed himself "in camel’s hair" – certainly not the clothing of one appreciating the niceties of this life. So too his diet of "locusts and wild honey;" it spoke of austerity, spoke of the fact that his focus was on things more important than fine foods.
To appreciate the emphasis John was communicating by living in the desert and wearing the clothes he did and eating his chosen foods, I draw your attention to the passage we read from Lev 16. The passage tells us that on the Day of Atonement the people of Israel were to "afflict [their] souls." That is, the people were to consider their sins and accursedness, so that each would detest the self and humble the self before God. That detesting the self, humbling the self, was to be a matter of the heart, of "grieving with heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin" (Lord’s Day 33). We understand that such heartfelt sorrow cannot remain hidden within the heart, but will invariably receive outward expression. After all, you cannot "grieve with heartfelt sorrow" and at the same time enjoy the fine things of life. Affliction of the soul by definition requires a more modest style of dress than a wedding party. John is in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair, and content with a diet of locusts and wild honey. His whole manner of presentation underlines his penance preaching. And there’s the point: he wants Israel to follow his example. He calls on the people to repent, to change their mind, no, not only in relation to particular sins dominating Israel, but rather he seeks a change of mind, of attitude, in relation to sin as such. He seeks among the people an attitude of humility on account of their sins-in-general. John’s emphasis is the same as the first part of the self-examination mentioned in the Lord’s Supper Form:
"First, let everyone consider his sins and accursedness, so that he, detesting himself, may humble himself before God."
There should be nothing of smugness among the people, as if they were something, were better than others. Hence John’s pointed words the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They didn’t accept the fact of their depravity, and so there was no sorrow for sin, no humility before God; they wouldn’t change their mind about sin, wouldn’t repent. Yet without humility, without sorrow for sin, there is no forgiveness of sins. Hence vs 10: "Even now," John says, "the ax is laid to the root of the trees" (vs 10). Repent, chance your attitude with regards to sin, be humble on account of the evils you do day by day, lest you be cast into the fire!
By God’s grace four young people profess the faith today. The Form for Profession of Faith would have us acknowledge not just God’s covenant promises with us, but also that we "truly detest and humble [ourselves] before God because of [our] sins." Here, Tish, Jeremy, Robert, Michael, is the very same attitude demanded by John in his preaching! None less than God Himself was coming to His people, and so in preparation there had to be that repentance, that affliction of the soul. And it wasn’t required in John’s day only. Here it is, in the Form for Profession of Faith, required of you too!
We all seek to sit at the Lord’s Table next Sunday. At that table we eat and drink with the very same Jesus whose coming John heralded, the almighty and merciful God-of-the-covenant who came in the flesh to pardon iniquity. In preparation for sitting together with this Jesus at one table, partaking of His flesh and blood, we need –says the Form for Celebration of the Lord’s Supper- to examine ourselves. That means, first of all, that everyone is to "consider his sins and accursedness, so that he, detesting himself, may humble himself before God." That’s exactly the ‘affliction of the soul’ required in Lev 16, the ‘repentance’ John sought in Mt 3. Christ –sovereign and merciful God!- is coming to us at this table. So there is need for an attitude with regards to sin, a change of mind away from the average approach we take to sin. Here is need for "heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sins."
Christ has not changed since the day of John’s preaching. That is why, brothers elders, the preaching –over which God gives you supervision- needs to continue to call for this mindset in the congregation. Similarly, this is the mindset you must insist upon for all those who would attend that table. And you, congregation, are responsible to produce this grief-on-account-of-sin day by day. For "every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (vs 10).
As it is, the smugness of the Pharisees and Sadducees did not characterize the response of the big majority of John’s audience. I read in vs 5 & 6 that "Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to [John] and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins." That last word, "confessing their sins," captures the response of the people to the preaching of the Baptist; they indeed "repented", humbled themselves on account of their sins and accursedness, and so came to John acknowledging their sinfulness and their sins. Here’s that attitude of humility, of being small before God. The people realize: the kingdom of heaven is at hand, the God of Isaiah 40 comes to earth to rule, and so we need to be prepared, need to be small before God, acknowledge our unworthiness.
And see now, beloved, what happens! John the herald takes these repentant persons and baptizes them. Baptism: our thoughts go the sacrament we saw last week, or to our own baptism in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, that glorious sign and seal of the covenant. Then we wonder: how does this tie in with the baptism of John?
But the baptism of John, brothers and sisters, is something different than the baptism we see periodically in church. The baptism of John is not a sacrament, is instead the spillover of the Old Testament regulations about washing. You know from the Law of Moses that God prescribed washings on certain occasions when one had become unclean. As an example of this washing, I remind you of God’s command concerning the Day of Atonement. The sins of the people, God commanded, had to be transferred to a goat, and the goat released into the wilderness. Then we read, "he who released the goat … shall wash his clothes, and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp" (Lev 16:26). That’s the intent of the washing: the person who took the sin-laden goat into the wilderness had to wash himself clean of any sins he contracted by touching the goat.
Now there’s John, and he tells the people to repent, to be humble on account of their sins. And by the grace of God, they are; they confess their sins. Hence John’s baptism, John’s washing; he submerged the whole person in the water of the Jordan River as a symbol of their being washed clean of their sins. How wonderful God’s work among the people as they prepared for the Coming One – sovereign and merciful God in the flesh!
Then, tragically, it’s true: once the Coming One actually arrived and began His public ministry, so many whom John had baptized were disappointed in Him, rejected Him. In fact, after three years of hard labor, the crowds cried out for His crucifixion. But His rejection by the masses does not take away from the fact that in Christ Jesus the "kingdom of heaven" did come. For Jesus of Nazareth displayed in His three years of labor His sovereignty over storms and over sickness – and He did so for the benefit of sinners; talk about mercy! On the cross He sovereignly defeated sin and Satan – and He did so for the benefit of sinners; talk about mercy! So at His ascension He received a seat at God’s right hand, to be Lord of lords, King from heaven over earth’s domain. From heaven He rules the world today, sovereignly, mercifully – for our benefit. Soon this very Jesus –true God- will appear on the clouds of heaven, and then every knee will bow before Him, including kings and rich men and business magnates, including orphans and refugees and prisoners also.
That is why, beloved of the Lord, the theme of John’s preaching remains the urgent message of the preaching today. "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," God the Son comes again soon in His full majesty and glory, and therefore "repent"! God the Son comes, and so the humility John displayed in the face of sin, the humility he demanded from the people, is imperative today also. God the Son comes, and we need to take seriously who the Coming One is, and therefore respond accordingly. Today again.
And see: God grants that response! Shortly I shall ask Tish, Robert, Jeremy and Michael whether they "truly detest and humble [themselves] before God because of [their] sins," and they shall respond with their "I do" – a response that God works in them. This coming week we all need –again- to consider our sins and accursedness, and by the grace of God we shall do precisely that and so sit with a good conscience at the Lord’s table next week.
That reality, brothers, is so encouraging for your task as office-bearers in Christ’s flock. The Christ who calls you –sovereign God, merciful God- is hard at work in the flock – for the salvation of sinners. You need but follow in His footsteps, repeat His words.
Who is the Jesus in whom we believe? Who the Jesus we serve? Who the Jesus at whose table we seek to sit? God-of-the-covenant He is, sovereign and merciful. So we stay humble on account of our sins, and know them washed away.
And that in turn gives reason to rejoice: the humble receive the glorious message that their iniquity is pardoned – in the blood of this sovereign and merciful God-of-the-covenant! "Comfort, yes, comfort My people," says your God! Amen.