In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Matthew 3:1-2 (NRSV)
I thought I’d shake things up and stop just short of an Old Testament citation.
We are short of an Old Testament citation, but not an Old Testament concept. John the Baptist gets no particular introduction. It may be safe to assume Matthew’s readers, or the readers of the source material Matthew is using, are already aware of who he was. Matthew will get us a little more insight into John’s activities in the next few verses, but he begins by introducing John with his message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Perhaps John has been reading the signs and knows this. Perhaps God revealed it to him. Perhaps it was some of both. Matthew does not tell us any previous history about John or his parents or his relationship with Jesus. But whatever the cause, John knows that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is imminent. It is not something far off in the distant future, but a historical reality that has come right to the doorstep of Israel.
This is good news, of course. We have seen from Matthew the prophetic expectations of the restoration of Israel of which Jesus is the herald and executor. The kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God) is about to invade the kingdom of Rome. From the Old Testament, we have a pretty good idea of what this kingdom will be like – a kingdom of peace, justice, mercy, compassion, care, and security. Shalom. Incidentally, this is where Jerusalem gets its name – Jeru shalom – the city of peace. Like the days of David and Solomon, the kingdom is very near. The fallen tent of David is about to be restored. The golden age – no, an even more golden golden age – is upon them.
But John does not dwell overmuch on that part of the message. He is a preparer. He is getting the people ready, and his instructions to them are to repent.
Repentance is something he calls the people to as a whole, and he tells his audience this is the proper response to the news that the kingdom of God is near. By repentance, of course, he does not mean a private prayer asking forgiveness of sins, but a collective turning away from them. He urges his audience to leave behind the ways of the Empire they live in and embrace the ways of the kingdom of God – the physical sign of this repentance will be baptism, which we’ll get into later. But it’s important to know that this is what John means by repentance – turning away from a lifestyle of one kingdom to embrace the lifestyle of the kingdom of God.
In the tradition of Old Testament prophets, John knows something that we’ll get both barrels of when the Pharisees and Sadducees show up – the arrival of the kingdom of God means the judgment of the existing powers. Like her days in Babylon, many in Israel have assimilated themselves into the world order of a corrupt religious power under the thumb of a corrupt political power. They have found a home there. And by becoming part of that system, they will share the fate of that system, which is total dismantling when the King arrives.
And so John tells his people to repent. Give up the ways of being in this world and embrace the ways of being of the kingdom come. By doing so, you will enjoy the good news of the coming kingdom and not find yourself cast out with the old world system whose power is shattered and has no more place. The stone that shatters all worldly powers is rolling downhill, and you don’t want to be at the bottom of that hill. You want to be behind the stone and follow in its train.
For us, the coming of the kingdom of God as Matthew and John expected it happened a long time ago. The book of Revelation puts us well past the destruction of the Beast and the Harlot as the Apostle John knew them. But there is still a resurrection and a new creation – a renewal of all things to match the extent of Jesus’ domain – every inch of every thing.
When that happens, there will not be any room for the powers of the old creation. War, death, evil, oppression – those things are destined for the lake of fire, never to trouble the children of mankind again. There will only be room for new creation.
And we must ask ourselves – are we prepared for that event? Will we find that we are ushered into this new creation with hardly a hiccup because we are already living in it, provisionally, today? Or will we find that we have, perhaps without even thinking about it, allied ourselves to the things that are passing away? Will we find that there is no place for us, because we have built our lives around idols and powers that have no place in God’s world? Will we find ourselves outside the gates of that creation?
I’m not going to lie to you; I don’t really know how all of that is going to pan out, exactly. I don’t know what God’s final ruling on all that is going to be as far as individuals are concerned. It’s His prerogative. He gets to forgive and save whoever He wants whenever He wants whyever He wants. It’s always been His creation, and so are we.
But what I do know is that there are a set of things that will be refined, renewed, and made perfect for the world to come, and there are a set of things that will just be done away with. I know that we can ally with one or the other, but not both, and I know the heartbeat of God is for all His children to pursue Him and His dream for the world, and I know injustice and evil will have no place in this dream.
The good news has a sobering side to it as well, doesn’t it? The kingdom of God is at hand! Get out of your old kingdom before it collapses.
- How does John the Baptist’s portrayal of repentance inform your own repentance? We are told we can always ask God for forgiveness, but is repentance more than only that?
- Various scriptures give us insight into the kinds of things that do not belong in God’s kingdom of shalom. Are we ensconced in any of those things? Are there even things in that category that aren’t overtly sinful?