[K:NWTS 1/1 (May 1986) 37-47]
In the gospel according to Matthew, the writer's purpose is to press the question, "Who is Jesus of Nazareth?" "Who is Jesus?" is the great question to be decided in the courtroom of God's covenant lawsuit against his people Israel. It is this question which will be prosecuted against the Jewish nation. Jesus himself says, "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all nations and then the end shall come" (Mt. 24:14). The desolation of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 are the result of covenant wrath fallen upon the nation of Israel because of their rejection of the gospel. It is the prosecution of this covenant lawsuit against Israel that determines the mission strategy of the apostle Paul in his concern to preach the gospel to the Jew first and then to the Gentiles throughout the world that surrounds the Mediterranean Sea. With the close of God's covenant lawsuit against Israel as his special people, that lawsuit is now to be prosecuted against all the nations of the earth. The question at issue is the same. To the four corners of the earth, to every tongue, tribe and nation, the test of all humanity, by which all men shall be judged, is the question, "Who is Jesus?"
In his gospel, Matthew is especially concerned for his own countrymen before time runs out for the Jewish nation. He longs for them to see in Jesus of Nazareth the long-promised, the long-awaited deliverer and King of Israel. Matthew wants his readers to see Jesus so as to recognize him and receive him by faith and, as a result, to find life in his name. Matthew longs for his people to join Mary and Joseph and the pagan wisemen from the east. He yearns for them to recognize Jesus as the Christ and believe in him and thus join the ranks of all those who, like Peter and the disciples, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt. 16:16).
For Matthew, the evidence in this court case was abundant. The evidence was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. This evidence could not be received on the basis of appearance however; it had to be received on the basis of faith. The failure of the Jews to recognize Jesus was not because there were no signs. It was not because the Jews were unprepared to receive them or were uninformed. The failure was due to the fact that they had their own ideas about what those signs would look like when they came. When the wisemen inquired into the birth of the King of the Jews, the chief priests and scribes knew the answer. They knew the Micah prophecy, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet" (Mt. 2:5). But for the birth of the King of the Jews to occur without their knowledge was unthinkable. After all, they were the aristocrats of Israel for whom the coming of the Messiah would be payment for their righteousness in keeping the law. That the Messiah might be born and they be left uninformed, not invited to share in the event; for the King to be born outside their circles implied that the Messiah's coming was not good news for them. It would imply God's displeasure with them and his rejection of them. The Jews fail to accept the signs and recognize in Jesus the Messiah because the signs do not fit with their desires.
Peter's classic confession of Jesus as the Christ comes when others are uncertain about Jesus' identity. Jesus the Messiah, who will save his people from their sins, is not recognized and received by sight, but only by faith. "Blessed are you Peter, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 16.17).
The position of John the Baptist is strategic for the Jews in order that they might recognize Jesus as the Messiah. In Matthew 3, the author records another sign by which Jesus' true identity might be understood. The Jewish nation was well aware of the prophecies that the promised deliverer-King would be preceded by the promised herald. In Matthew 3:1, the evangelist introduces John the Baptist. "Now in those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea . . . . " The word "preaching" means to proclaim as a herald. The herald's job was to announce the arrival of the king and to make sure everything was in readiness to receive him when he came. His job was to prepare everyone and to focus everyone's attention upon the coming king. The Old Testament promised that when the Christ came, he would be preceded by the herald. The Jews were well aware of these prophecies. The last book of the Old Testament speaks about the herald and the coming of the Lord. Malachi states that there will be a final appearance of two messengers of the covenant (the "my messenger" and the "messenger of the covenant" in Malachi 3:1). These two messengers will deliver an ultimatum to Israel. An ultimatum is a final message and warning that time has run out and that judgment is about to come. John the Baptist refers to this ultimatum when he says to the Pharisees and Sadducees that "the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Mt. 3:10). The coming judgment will purify and refine the nation like "refiner's fire and like fuller's soap" (Mal. 3:2). It will be a time when God draws near to the nation for judgment (Mal. 3:5). But before this day of judgment arrives, we read, "Behold I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord . . ." (Mal. 4:4).
The Jews were well acquainted with the promise of the herald who will precede the coming of the Lord. It is clear from the gospels that public opinion in Israel was seeking to discern the identities of John and Jesus. Is John the Messiah? Is Jesus Elijah or a prophet? In the gospel of John, the people ask the Baptist, "Are you the Christ?" John answers, "I am not the Christ" (John 1:20). They ask him if he is Elijah (the forerunner) and John's answer takes us by surprise. He says, "No" (John 1:21). What do we make of this, especially in light of Matthew 11:14 where Jesus explicitly calls John, Elijah?
In John 1, John the Baptist is denying that he is Elijah in the sense held by the Jewish expectation. The Jews expected the prophet Elijah, who never died but was taken directly to heaven, to reappear. John denies being Elijah in that sense. He affirms however that he is the herald, the forerunner that was prophesied. "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord" (John 1:23).
Matthew directs his Jewish countrymen to the long-promised and long-awaited Messiah. The promised Messiah would be preceded by the promised herald. In Matthew 3:3, the apostle quotes Isaiah 40, one of the great scripture passages dealing with Messianic hope and expectation. The passage announces the end of Israe1's bondage and captivity in Babylon. But beyond Babylon, it also foretells Israel's liberation from their deepest need, their deepest slavery: namely liberation from sin and death. The accomplishment of God's redemption of his people is preceded by the announcement of it. "A voice calling, clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God." The coming of God's great redemption of his people is preceded by the work of the herald. And so it is that the coming of the Lord Jesus and the kingdom of blessing and salvation which he inaugurates is heralded in the preaching of John the Baptist. This is a sign to the Jews whereby they might recognize Jesus as the Messiah and believe in him.
Throughout this New Testament age, the coming of Jesus and the great kingdom of salvation that he brings continues to be heralded in the preaching of the gospel. The church now stands in the position of the herald. The Lord Jesus is coming again in a final demonstration of salvation and judgment and it is the preaching of the cross that alone heralds his coming. If anyone in this age is to come to know Christ and the gift of God's grace revealed in him for the forgiveness of sin and eternal life, they must come to that knowledge by means of the proclamation of the gospel. It is this proclamation of the gospel which is the only sign that is given by which men might believe in him. The preaching of the death and resurrection of Christ is the sign to our whole age whereby men might recognize and receive Jesus as the Christ and find life in his name.
As the church of Christ, let us give ourselves diligently and wholeheartedly to this task of proclamation. Let Christ–and him crucified and risen–be lifted up as a signal to the nations, a rallying point seen all over the world, to which people from every tongue, tribe and nation will be gathered. Let Christ–and him crucified and risen–be lifted up for all to see as the sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
The church is in the position of the herald to proclaim the coming of the Lord. It has before it a challenging project. It is not coincidental that both the ministry of John and the ministry of our Savior begin in the Judean wilderness. There is a deep significance to the idea of the wilderness in scripture. The wilderness is a picture of abandonment under the curse of the covenant. The thing that impresses us about the desert is that it is a "God-forsaken place." It is forsaken in the sense that no one lives there and very little life of any kind can survive there. It is a place which heaven has overlooked or ignored for it is devoid of life and fruitfulness. It is a symbol of the curse–of total abandonment under the curse.
In the Old Testament, when Israel was captive in a foreign land, under the oppression of an enemy and shamed by them, Israel was experiencing, in those times, the covenant wrath of God. Because of their departure from the covenant, they were exiled from the land and held captive by foreign nations. They were abandoned and they are pictured as those who languish in a wilderness. They have been cast out of the garden, the land flowing with milk and honey, the place where there is communion and fellowship with God.
It is to those who sit in the wilderness that deliverance comes. When John and Jesus come on the scene to announce God's salvation, they inaugurate their ministries by rising up out of the wilderness–the symbol of captivity and abandonment of the Jewish nation. Just as Moses appeared out of the Sinai wilderness to captive Israel in Egypt to deliver them from their captivity, so also Christ's public ministry is inaugurated from out of the wilderness, to lead God's people out of their bondage to sin and Satan, and into a life of blessing and glory. Later in Israel's history, the prophet Elijah comes across the Jordan River from out of the wilderness where he had been hiding. He comes to Israel which had been turned into a desert by a three-year drought. He comes to lead the people out of their captivity to Baal worship. After the prophets of Baal were slain, it rained again in Israel and the land experienced redemption and the renewal of life. It was Moses and Elijah who appeared with our Lord when he was transformed on the mountain in the presence of Peter, James and John. In Luke 9:31, we are told that they spoke together of the "departure" or the "exodus" that he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Moses and Elijah, the two major exodus-leading figures in the Old Testament, speak with Jesus about the exodus he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem by means of his death and resurrection. His exodus is the fulfillment of the deliverance which Moses and Elijah had only foreshadowed. Jesus is the deliverer who has come to lead an exodus of his people from their captivity, to lead them out from under the curse, out of the wilderness and into a new and glorious life of fruitfulness to God.
And so it is that the heralding of the gospel takes place in the wilderness. It takes place in a land which is barren in terms of fruitfulness to God. The church has its existence for now in the midst of the wilderness. We minister among the nations of the earth, among people and cultures that sit in darkness and the shadow of death. The work of the church is therefore difficult. We know how difficult it is to get anything to grow and come alive in a desert. But we are encouraged by the understanding that God's redemptive purpose specializes in turning deserts into fruitful places of worship and service to him. It is God who can make the desert blossom, who can also turn the wilderness of our hearts and lives into fruitful service to himself. The mighty power of God can make what is dead alive. God will come again in his Son Christ Jesus through the wilderness of this world and someday make a whole new creation that blossoms in a rich harvest to him.
Though the church finds itself with a difficult project, we have the promise of God. The desert will bloom again by virtue of the outpouring of God's Spirit. In fact, it already has. The Spirit has been poured out, the new creation is already underway in the church which offers the fruitfulness of its worship and service to God throughout the age and until Jesus comes again.
The ministry of John the Baptist helps us to see the way in which the church's proclamation in the wilderness paves the way for the coming of Christ. The herald crying in the wilderness prepares or readies the way of the Lord. In other words, in the work of heralding, a path is cleared, a path is opened in the wilderness by which the Lord comes. Just as a red carpet is rolled out to welcome a "VIP" and over that carpet the dignitaries arrive, so also the herald makes a path or clears a path by which the king comes. That path is the path of repentance.
In their history, the Jews knew that the periods of their slavery and captivity were periods of indignation. God's righteous anger had fallen upon them on account of their disobedience. Israel knows that when they are captives of another nation, it is due to their unfaithfulness in the covenant and that they are being punished. Furthermore, it was understood that what paved the way of the Lord's coming to deliver them from their bondage was repentance; their crying out to God in the fiery furnace of their affliction; their confession of their sin and turning to rest and trust in him.
We remember Daniel's prayer from Babylon recorded in Daniel 9. The Jews are in exile and Daniel, from his reading of the prophet Jeremiah, understands that the 70 years of exile must be about over. Daniel 9 records the prayer Daniel offers as a result. It is a prayer of confession of sin and repentance on behalf of the nation. We read in verse 20, "Now while I was speaking and praying, and confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before the Lord my God in behalf of the holy mountain of my God, while I was still speaking in prayer, then the man Gabriel . . . came to me . . . ." It is in conjunction with Daniel's prayer of repentance and confession of sin that Gabriel appears with the message of deliverance from the exile. Repentance is the path unrolled in the wilderness over which the Lord will come in deliverance.
John the Baptist is the promised herald who prepares the way of the Lord by calling for repentance. He proclaims, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 3:2). Matthew's Jewish countrymen know that repentance is the necessary way by which to prepare for the coming of the King. The scriptures abound with the witness that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble; that the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit–a broken and a contrite heart. The cry of the herald in the wilderness is a call to repentance. Repentance is the path over which God comes to save us and deliver us from our sin. The need is for repentance; a humbling of ourselves and a turning to trust in the grace and forgiveness of the King.
This repentance must be genuine and accompanied by the demonstration that our lives have changed. We read in Matthew 3:5,6 that "Jerusalem was going out to the Jordan and that they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sin." In verse seven however, we read that the Pharisees and Sadducees were also coming to him to be baptized. These were the aristocrats of Israel, the people with circumcision in their flesh and with Abraham's true blood in their veins. They were the people who were ready to break their bodies and shed their blood to give heaven a little peace. But they were the people who were unwilling to recognize and receive heaven's peace–the peace of Christ's body broken for them and his blood shed for them. Since they are unwilling to humble themselves, their desire for baptism is nothing but a pretense of virtue while at bottom nothing would ever change in their lives. Therefore, "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? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with your repentance" (Mt. 3:7,8).
The day of the Lord is a great and terrible day. For those who genuinely repent, whose confession of sin is adorned with fruitfulness of life to God, it is the day of salvation. For those whose baptism is a sham, who in baptism confess that the old man has died and the new man has come alive, and yet nothing really changes, it is a day of wrath and vengeance. John the Baptist refers to this sifting and sorting out of the genuine and the false, the wheat and the tares in Matthew 3:12. In the coming of the Lord, "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly clean his threshing floor; and he will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Always remember that the call to fruitfulness is not a contradiction of grace, but rather a confirmation of it. Fruit does not call attention to itself as the basis of its life. It doesn't produce itself. Fruit is the result of a good tree, good soil and a wise and skillful gardener. If the wilderness of our lives and of the world we live in is ever to blossom again, it will be the result of God's grace at work. Fruit never points to itself, but rather always points to the source and creator of it. Fruit shows that a tree is alive but it does not point to itself as the basis of its life. So also our confession of sin and our repentance must be adorned with fruit. But we never point to that fruit as the basis of our life; we point only and always to Christ and his work–the work he has done for us and continues to do in us.
It is the church's privilege to prepare for the Lord's coming. It is our privilege to prepare the hearts of men to receive him and our privilege to prepare the whole world for his coming again and the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth. It is our privilege to be a part already of the new creation, blooming with worship and praise to God both with our lips and in our lives. It is our privilege to encourage one another in our journey through the wilderness and to provoke one another to hold to that path that leads to eternal glory.
The church also awaits the arrival of the Lord Jesus from heaven. Our waiting is not one of inactivity, but rather we wait by seeking to order our lives to please the King when he comes. To Matthew's fellow countrymen and to our world also, signs are given that men might recognize Jesus as the Messiah and that in answer to the question, "Who is Jesus?," they might reply, "He is the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Our desire for our fellow man is that he will recognize and receive Christ by faith by the means of the proclamation of the gospel. The question now before every man is, "Do you recognize Jesus?" The day is coming soon when the question will no longer be, "Do we recognize Jesus?" but rather, "Does Jesus recognize us as his disciples and claim us as his people?"
Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Morgantown, West Virginia