Isaiah Malachi Matthew Sermons 

The Herald of the King and His Message


Isaiah 40:1-5; Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 3:1-12; 11:11-15
January 21, 2018 • Download this sermon (PDF)

Beloved Congregation of Christ: Did you know that the Olympic marathon event started about 2,500 years ago? Well, sort of. The marathon, a long-distance running event of 26 miles, 385 yards, was a commemoration of the run of an Athenian soldier named Pheidippides from a battlefield near the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 B.C. According to the legend, Pheidippides ran the approximately 25 miles to announce the good news of their victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. But after he delivered the message, he keeled over and died.

However, the ancient historian Herodotus disproves this story. The messenger’s run was not the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens, but from Athens to Sparta, another great Greek city, a distance of 140 miles. The message was to ask the Spartans to help the Athenians fight the Persians, because the Athenian army of 10,000 was greatly outnumbered by the 20,000-100,000 Persians. He arrived in Sparta the next day, but the Spartans did not send their troops until after the Battle of Marathon was over. After the battle, the Athenians marched quickly back to Athens where they again defeated the Persians who wanted to invade and burn the city. As an aside of interest to us, the Persian king during this time was Darius, the same king who allowed the Jews to return to Canaan in 538 B.C., 48 years before the Battle of Marathon.

Messengers or heralds were important in the ancient world. In the Roman Empire, heralds read the Caesar’s decrees in Rome and throughout the empire. Heralds were surely used when Augustus Caesar issued a decree that all the people of the empire must register in their hometowns, including Joseph and Mary who registered in Bethlehem.

Thirty years after Jesus was born, there came another herald. But this herald did not announce victory over enemies, but of a kingdom that was coming. This herald was John the Baptizer.

The Herald of the King

Who was John the Baptizer? And what was his message? Before we look at his message, let us first look at his identity.

First, John the Baptizer was not a New Testament prophet, but the last of the Old Testament prophets. Malachi was the last prophet in the Old Testament Scriptures, but John was the last Old Testament prophet, though he came 400 years after Malachi. Why did he belong to the Old Testament? Because he came before Jesus, who would fulfill all the promises of God in the Old Testament, as the head and mediator of the new covenant.

Second, John the Baptizer was the herald prophesied in the Old Testament. What were these prophecies? The first one is in Isaiah 40:3, “A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Matthew uses this verse to introduce John. The second prophecy is in Malachi 3:1, where the LORD also says, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.”

And the third prophecy is in Malachi 4:3-4, where God again says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” This is the same prophecy that the angel announced in Luke 1:16, to Zechariah, the father of John. Some people then teach that in the last days, the prophet Elijah will appear on earth to warn people of the coming judgment. But who is this Elijah that Malachi was prophesying? In Matthew 11:13–14, Jesus tells his disciples that this coming Elijah is none other than John, saying, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John . . . he is Elijah who is to come.”

How else is John the fulfillment of the coming of the prophet Elijah? Our text describes John’s place of preaching and clothing. In verse 1, John preached in the wilderness, where Elijah also was sent by God to flee from wicked King Ahab. And like Elijah, “John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist.” (2 Kgs 1:8).

So John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. And he was also the herald that was prophesied by Isaiah and Malachi. Matthew 3:3 says that he was the one who came to “prepare the way of the Lord.” How then did he prepare the way of the Lord? And what was his message?

The Herald’s Good News of Comfort

John’s message can be summarized in verse 2: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” What kind of message is this? First, what does the command “Repent” mean? In the New Testament, the verb “to repent” is literally “to change one’s mind.” It is not only turning away from sin, but also includes turning to righteous living, obeying God’s holy Word.

This is what is meant by our Heidelberg Catechism reading. Repentance consists of two things. The first is “heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.” But this is not complete repentance. There must be evidence of true repentance. What is this evidence? The evidence is “delighting in living according to the will of God in all good works.” This is why John warned the Jews, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Another evidence of true repentance that John preached is baptism. Many Jews from all over Jerusalem and Judea came to him to be baptized, confessing their sins. Cleansing with water is a visible sign of an invisible reality: repentance coming from the heart. Baptism is the visible sign of the invisible reality of repentance, the washing away of sins. But do not confuse the baptism by John with our Christian baptism. Because John was still operating under the old covenant, the baptism performed by him was an old covenant ceremonial purification rite with water. For example, a leper, or a person who touches a dead body, must come to the priest and be sprinkled with water to be declared clean (Lev 14:7; Num 19:13).

But why did John preach a message of repentance? Because “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And what is this kingdom of heaven? The “kingdom of heaven” is a significant term in the Gospel of Matthew. He uses it 32 times, while he uses “kingdom of God” only four times. The Sermon on the Mount is about living as kingdom citizens. The parables of Jesus were about the kingdom. But why does he use “kingdom of heaven” so much more than “kingdom of God”? Because for Jews, the word “God” is so holy that they wouldn’t even say it.

In the Old Testament, the word used is simply “kingdom.” But the idea is the same. God is the King of all creation, delegating the responsibility of kingship to Adam. When he created the nation Israel, he was its King, creating and enforcing its laws, the Law of Moses. He later created the kingdom of Israel under its kings, the most preeminent being King David.

But the kingdom of Israel was only a picture or a shadow of a worldwide kingdom that God would establish. This is what God promised in his covenant with King David in 2 Samuel 7:12-16. He would have a Son who would be King over an everlasting kingdom. This Son is Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, the King of the Jews, and King of kings. And what is his kingdom? It is his Church, whom Peter calls “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet 2:9; cf Exo 19:6). Paul calls the members of the kingdom of Christ, “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19). This is why Jesus said to Pilate at his trial, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

John’s message then was that the Messiah had come, and would soon be preaching the same message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17). When he came, he inaugurated the kingdom of God. This is why later, he declared to the Jews, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). He was telling them, “Don’t you see? I’m here with you. I am the kingdom of God.”

Both John’s and Jesus’ message to us is the same: Don’t look here and there for the kingdom of God. Don’t wait for the Second Coming, or your death, to enter the kingdom of heaven. When Christ came, died and resurrected from the grave, the kingdom of God arrived. Where is the kingdom of God found today? Wherever in the world there is a true church of believers who have repented of their sins, who have believed in Jesus as Savior, and who worship the Triune God every Lord’s Day, there the kingdom of God is found.

Therefore, the good news that John the herald of Christ brought was this: repent of your sins, believe in Jesus as Savior and King, and you will be counted as members of God’s kingdom forever.

The Herald’s Bad News of Judgment

But often in Scripture, there is both good news and bad news. So in our worship service, there is the bad news of God’s anger on our sinfulness, and the good news of God’s mercy and forgiveness in Christ. And this is true with John the Baptizer’s message.

Many Jews went to John to be baptized, so the Pharisees and Sadducees sent their representatives to see what he was preaching and doing. They did not come to repent and be baptized, because we know that these people were legalists and self-righteous. So when John saw them, he condemned them with these harsh words in verse 7, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Vipers were known for stealthily coming up to their prey and lethally striking with speed. These Jews were like vipers who were treacherous and deadly in their hypocritical teachings and practices, leading people away from God’s Word.

These Jews were not there because they feared God’s wrath. No, they did not come to repent and be baptized and be delivered from God’s wrath to come. They do their good works publicly so others will heap praises upon them (Matt 6:5-6). Their food is to be in high positions of prestige (Matt 23:6-7). So they expected that when the Messiah comes, they will be greatly rewarded for their good works. In harshly condemning them publicly, John was fulfilling Elijah, who publicly condemned King Ahab and Israel’s false priests for their wicked deeds, and almost cost him his life. In John’s case, his rebuke of the Jews cost him his life.

John knew what these Pharisees and Sadducees were thinking: “How can you condemn us who are Abraham’s children? We’re members of God’s chosen, treasured nation of Israel. And who are you to condemn us?” But John tells them in verse 9, “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” If the Jews refused to repent, God would reject them and cast them out of his kingdom, and will raise up children for Abraham from other peoples. What John meant was that God would judge the Jews.

This is why John says in verse 10 that judgment against unbelieving Jews is near, “now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.” Those trees that did not bear good fruit will be cut down into stumps and burned. Again, this is a picture of Old Testament Israel becoming a mere stump when it was destroyed by the Babylonians (Isa 11:1). John’s prophecy against Israel was fulfilled about 40 years later when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple once and for all in 70 A.D.

By that date, the gospel was already preached to all the Roman world. So then, both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ became true children of Abraham, citizens of his kingdom (Gal 3:29). The kingdom of God expanded outside of Israel. The “dividing wall” in the new covenant has now changed from between Jews and Gentiles, to between believers and unbelievers (Eph 2:14).

This is why John says in verse 12 that the Messiah coming after him has a winnowing fork in his threshing floor to separate the wheat from the chaff. He would be like a farmer throwing his harvest into the wind so that the chaff will be blown away. He would then gather the chaff into a separate pile and burn it. We also see this picture in the description of the wicked in Psalm 1:4–5, “The wicked are . . . like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment.”

Beloved friends: When John appeared in the wilderness, he was the herald of our Lord Jesus Christ. He proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, so he commanded everyone to come in repentance and faith and be baptized with water. Jesus is the King of the kingdom of heaven, and he would baptize all who would believe in him with the Holy Spirit. But all who reject him will be “baptized” with the fire of God’s eternal wrath.

This separation between believers and unbelievers already started when John later proclaimed Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). He would be a meek lamb who would suffer and die on the cross as a sacrifice for our all our sins. He now commands everyone to repent of their sins and believe in him as Savior. This is the good news: all who repent and believe will be citizens of the kingdom of heaven. But the bad news is this: all who don’t will be cast into eternal punishment.

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