John the Baptist heralds the king and His kingdom. Today, we will look at notions of the kingdom current in his day and the baptism John administers in preparation for its coming. According to Matthew, John says that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 2). Of note is the phrase “the kingdom of heaven,” the preferred name for the kingdom in the first gospel. In a few instances, Matthew uses “the kingdom of God,” which is favored in the other Gospels. These phrases are synonymous, and Matthew’s use of heaven is probably nothing more than a stylistic variance — a decision to use a different word that gives a slightly different emphasis. In this case, heaven points us to a kingdom not of this world.
The ancient Jews knew God was sovereign over all creation even if many did not submit to Him (Jer. 10:6–10). The kingdom of heaven refers not to the reality of this reign, but to its universal acknowledgment, especially as administered through God’s chosen regent. Beginning with Abraham, who was promised kings as sons (Gen. 17:5–6), Scripture looks to the day in which all nations bow to Yahweh and willingly serve the Son of David, through whom the Lord exercises His dominion most visibly (Amos 9:11–15; Zech. 14:16). Different ideas as to how the kingdom will come are present in Judaism in the first century a.d. One popular view longs for a Messiah who will be a military ruler, thereby kicking Rome out of the Promised Land and setting Israel over all the nations.
Though John the Baptist knows the kingdom is at hand, it seems he is unclear as to the exact manner in which it will come (Matt. 11:1–19). However, John does understand that the Jews in his day are not ready for the kingdom. In the first century, Gentile “sinners” are washed with water when they convert to Judaism, but Jews are rarely, if ever, baptized for the confession and forgiveness of sins (3:5–6). As John preaches in Judea, he calls upon even the covenant people of God to repent of their transgressions. He understands their lack of contrition is causing their troubles and knows that being a Jew outwardly is not enough to secure for oneself a place in the kingdom (vv. 7–10). Needless to say, John’s message is unpopular with those who find security in their ethnicity.
We will talk about the kingdom and its coming over the course of our study this year. For now, note that God’s kingdom did not come with military force, as was popularly expected, but in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Though foretold by the prophets, many people missed this truth. Today, many churches expect the kingdom to come through programs, cultural savvy, and political legislation. May we never believe this falsehood.
For further study:
The Bible in a year:
For the weekend: