Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Matthew 3: God's gracious dealings

(Mat 3:1-17 NASB) - (1) Now in those days John the Baptist came,preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, (2) "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (3) For this is the one referred toby 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 baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. (7) But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, 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 baptize 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 baptize 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 arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. (14) But John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I have need to be baptized 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 permitted Him. (16) After being baptized, 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."
(Matthew 3 NASB)

The Hebrew for John means "God has dealt graciously."

As I study Matthew 3, I see how significant this name is for the forerunner of the Messiah. Coming as the first prophet to speak after 400 years of silence, John's message of repentance, the nearness of the kingdom of God, and a judgment to come might sound a lot like "tough love". Yet his very name was a reminder to his primarily Jewish audience that God has, indeed, dealt graciously.

For the Jewish people, it was also intended as a reminder that God's gracious dealings in the past were the best way to know His character - a heart of mercy. Everything that He commanded was for them. So the call through John to "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" was a call for a heart change that embraced a way of living that resulted in a change of mind, heart, and life. It was for their benefit, because God as their Maker knew what was best and what would only bring harm. He wanted shalom - peace and wholeness - for them, because His kingdom had come near them. Just as the priests purified themselves to enter the holy of holies, so His people needed God to purify them for the coming kingdom.

God also reminded them of His graciousness in not meeting their kingdom expectations. For Matthew, "Kingdom of heaven" is used to refer to the rule of God that transcends political nations. As A.T. Robertson notes, "it points fundamentally to God's rule, not to the realm over which He rules." Although this would prove to be one of the hardest teachings for them to swallow - even His closest apostles wouldn't get it until the Holy Spirit came upon them in Acts - it really was gracious. "It is too small a thing", God told the Messiah in Isaiah 49:6, "that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth." Jesus didn't come to save Israel from Rome; He came to save all of us from the clutches of the enemy of our souls!

So how does one whose very name means "God has dealt graciously" approach ministry when he was bringing this "tough love" message to people with a quite different conception of the kingdom of heaven than God's? By preaching a message that I have summarized with the title "It's time for Authentic Faith." I always take notes in sermons, and so the "bullet points" I noted from John's message in Matthew 3 are:
  • God's kingdom has come near - prepare for the Lord by repenting. 
  • Live consistently with the repentance you claim- this is fruitfulness. 
  • Reject the tendency to lean on a spiritual heritage instead of a personal faith. 
  • God is looking for fruitful faith. 
  • Baptism for repentance comes first, then baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. 
  • Jesus brings this baptism along with judgment. He will separate the real (wheat) from the fake (chaff). 
Many responded to this message - and like most in ministry, John had his detractors as well. But none of that mattered the day He showed up. The day Jesus came to John to be baptized. With all his understanding of Scripture and anointing by God for the ministry as a forerunner, John still didn't get why Jesus needed to be baptized. Face to face with the very One whose graciousness lended John his name, John became the first to try to stop Jesus from doing something that He simply had to do.

The words "tried to stop" literally mean "would have hindered" - involving strong protests on John's part. Later on Peter would try to stop Jesus from talking about the cross (Mark 8:27-33). The incarnation wasn't just about Jesus' birth - it was about Him entering into our lives, our world - about Him identifying with the people He came to save and following that identification all the way to the cross. From a human perspective, Jesus' actions were radical, maybe a bit eccentric, but ultimately honorable. To this day "holy" men and women in various religious traditions make sacrifices and some even die. But for the Messiah - God in the flesh, Jesus Himself - to not only step into our world but identify with sinners through a baptism of repentance -- that was almost incomprehensible. John rightly realized that the tables should be turned. Like Isaiah in the holy of holies (Isaiah 6), John's encounter with God left him humbled.

The shocking incomprehension of the incarnation - that God would bring Himself to our level and identify with His creation in very tangible ways - is also its beauty. Because when God took on flesh and came to walk with sinners and yet retain perfect holiness, He brought to earth the graciousness and mercy that were in God's heart all along. The Fall so corrupted man that even our view of God is skewed. Jesus came to set that right - all the way to the cross. As Adrian Rodgers has so aptly said, "The cross didn't change God's heart; it revealed it."

A.W. Tozer said that God is both "transcendentally personal" and "personally transcendent" - meaning that He is always separate from His creation, holy and uncorrupt, and yet unswervingly personal to each of His children. In the incarnation, transcendental met personal.

When we embrace that truth, we come face to face with who Jesus is. We see His holiness that certainly did not need to be baptized. And we see His heart of grace and mercy. We know that John's name reflected a deep truth - "God has dealt graciously."

Whatever you are facing today is subject to the character of this holy and gracious God. Like Job, we can bow in worship. Like David, we can pour out our hearts to Him in all the rawness of our emotions. And like John, we can know that He has dealt graciously with us, too.

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