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The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany is February 5, 2023.

Readings for Year A can be found here.

The Gospel is as follows (emphases mine):

Matthew 5:13-20

5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

5:15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.

5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

5:18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

5:19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (as specified below).

This post is long, as our Lord’s teaching is so rich in content.

Readings from the Sermon on the Mount continue. Last week’s, Matthew 5:1-12, were about the Beatitudes.

Jesus ended that portion of His sermon, delivered to the twelve original disciples (whom He would later call as Apostles), although within earshot of the crowd, with the Beatitude on persecution:

5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Then He discussed what those obeying the Beatitudes were to do, even when persecuted.

Matthew Henry’s commentary sums up verses 13 to 16 as follows:

Christ had lately called his disciples, and told them that they should be fishers of men; here he tells them further what he designed them to bethe salt of the earth, and lights of the world, that they might be indeed what it was expected they should be.

John MacArthur says:

the final Beatitude in verses 10-12 is transitional.  We see, in verses 10-12, the attitude of the world toward the believer, and in 13-16, the attitude of the believer to the world.  The world is going to hate us, but we still have to be salt and light to influence them.  The important truth is revealed that the people whom the world hates are the very ones they desperately need to be influenced by.  Did you hear that?  Even the quasi-religious, quasi-pious scribes and Pharisees who hated the representatives of Jesus Christ were totally dependent on their influence to know the truth of God.  The world may hate us and the world may persecute us, but the world is absolutely dependent upon us being the influence and the verbal manifestation of the gospel of God.

Jesus told them that they were the salt of the earth, telling them that they must remain like good salt, not the kind that loses its taste and is no good anymore, so must be thrown out and trampled under foot (verse 13).

Salt, particularly in ancient times, was valuable and used for different purposes. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, giving rise to the expression ‘worth his salt’. Salt preserved meat, e.g. beef jerky. Salt was used in covenants and still is today in parts of the Middle East. Newborn babies were cleansed in salt then wrapped in swaddling clothes. Salt, when poured in a wound, stings terribly. MacArthur’s sermon discusses all of these examples.

Henry reminds us that salt was used in Old Testament sacrifices:

An everlasting covenant is called a covenant of salt (Num 18 19); and the gospel is an everlasting gospel. Salt was required in all the sacrifices (Lev 2 13), in Ezekiel’s mystical temple, Ezek 43 24. Now Christ’s disciples having themselves learned the doctrine of the gospel, and being employed to teach it to others, were as salt. Note, Christians, and especially ministers, are the salt of the earth.

He summarises our Lord’s meaning:

The doctrine of the gospel is as salt; it is penetrating, quick, and powerful (Heb 4 12); it reaches the heart Acts 2 37. It is cleansing, it is relishing, and preserves from putrefaction. We read of the savour of the knowledge of Christ (2 Cor 2 14); for all other learning is insipid without that …

1. If they be as they should be they are as good salt, white, and small, and broken into many grains, but very useful and necessary. Pliny says, Sine sale, vita humana non potest degere—Without salt human life cannot be sustained. See in this, (1.) What they are to be in themselves—seasoned with the gospel, with the salt of grace; thoughts and affections, words and actions, all seasoned with grace, Col 4 6. Have salt in yourselves, else you cannot diffuse it among others, Mark 9 50. (2.) What they are to be to others; they must not only be good but do good, must insinuate themselves into the minds of the people, not to serve any secular interest of their own, but that they might transform them into the taste and relish of the gospel. (3.) What great blessings they are to the world. Mankind, lying in ignorance and wickedness, were a vast heap of unsavoury stuff, ready to putrefy; but Christ sent forth his disciples, by their lives and doctrines, to season it with knowledge and grace, and so to render it acceptable to God, to the angels, and to all that relish divine things. (4.) How they must expect to be disposed of. They must not be laid on a heap, must not continue always together at Jerusalem, but must be scattered as salt upon the meat, here a grain and there a grain; as the Levites were dispersed in Israel, that, wherever they live, they may communicate their savour. Some have observed, that whereas it is foolishly called an ill omen to have the salt fall towards us, it is really an ill omen to have the salt fall from us.

2. If they be not, they are as salt that has lost its savour. If you, who should season others, are yourselves unsavoury, void of spiritual life, relish, and vigour; if a Christian be so, especially if a minister be so, his condition is very sad; for, (1.) He is irrecoverable: Wherewith shall it be salted? Salt is a remedy for unsavoury meat, but there is no remedy for unsavoury salt. Christianity will give a man a relish; but if a man can take up and continue the profession of it, and yet remain flat and foolish, and graceless and insipid, no other doctrine, no other means, can be applied, to make him savoury. If Christianity do not do it, nothing will. (2.) He is unprofitable: It is thenceforth good for nothing; what use can it be put to, in which it will not do more hurt than good? As a man without reason, so is a Christian without grace. A wicked man is the worst of creatures; a wicked Christian is the worst of men; and a wicked minister is the worst of Christians. (3.) He is doomed to ruin and rejection; He shall be cast out—expelled the church and the communion of the faithful, to which he is a blot and a burden; and he shall be trodden under foot of men. Let God be glorified in the shame and rejection of those by whom he has been reproached, and who have made themselves fit for nothing but to be trampled upon.

MacArthur has more on the need for salt, in our Lord’s time and the present day.

He delivered his sermon in 1979. His next point is still important in today’s world which increasingly refuses Christianity:

The presupposition here is that we live in a decayed and decaying, dark and darkening world; that is the biblical world view.  Jesus reveals His perspective on the world: It’s decayed and dark.

And it isn’t getting better.  “Evil men,” it says in Timothy’s epistle, “Evil men shall become worse and worse.”  Now you know, it is absolutely a ridiculous, stupid pipe dream to think the world is getting better It can’t get better because it isn’t good to start with.  It’s bad, and it’s getting worse.

One of the professors at a local college was telling his class recently — one of the students told me this last week that the reason marriage was on the decline and the reason marriage was fading out as a human institution was because man was evolving to a higher level and marriage was something that man only needed at the lower level. And he was now evolving to a higher level of living — evolutionary style of living — that was causing marriage, like his prehensile tail, to drop off.

Listen, anybody standing around in the world today, saying, “We’re still evolving up,” is blind as a bat!  Now, I agree that we’re learning a lot We have an incredible amount of science, and technology, and medical knowledge, and philosophy, and history, and sociology, and psychology, and educational technique, and all of this stuff is going on all the time. And you know what?  It has no effect upon the corruption of society, none at all.  We just get worse and worse and worse.  All that information means nothing.

Even the oft-quoted philosopher and unbeliever Bertrand Russell was disappointed at the end of his life:

By the way, it’s really a frustrating thing to be a philosopher.  Bertrand Russell spent his whole life being a philosopher.  At 96 years, he was ready to die.  His final statement was this, “Philosophy has proved a washout to me.”  It didn’t take him anyplace, because nothing that he ever thought of ever had anything to affect the way the world was going.

MacArthur quotes from a 1979 article from Time, which still resonates today with all the criticism of the Boomer generation:

Time Magazine, listen to this: “Today’s young radicals in particular are almost painfully sensitive to these and other wrongs of their society And they denounce them violently.  But at the same time, they are typically American, in that they fail to place evil in its historic and human perspective.”  Time Magazine says this!  “To them, evil is not an irreducible component of man, it is not an inescapable fact of life, but something committed by the older generation, attributable to a particular class or the establishment, and eradicable through love or revolution.” End quote. That’s foolish.  It is an irreducible human component, evil is.

Today’s churches are not helping the situation:

You know what’s so sad about it, people, is that instead of the church influencing the world this [a good, salty] way, the church is influenced by the world ... Remember some months back when I talked to you about the crises of Christianity and how the church has fallen victim to so many trends in human society?  It’s ludicrous what the church permits under the influence of the world …

We are called to be salty:

Literally translating verse 13 would be this: “The only salt of the earth is you.” “The only salt of the earth is you.”  That’s it. That’s it.  Here we are in 1979, in Southern California, in the midst of a decadent and dark society, and the only salt of this place is you.  That’s it, all who possess the character of the kingdom.

And by the way, the “you” is plural. He’s talking about the collective body of believers.  No, you don’t put one grain of salt on anything You don’t say, “Pass the salt,” and then pick out one thing and drop it on there.  It only functions in combination with other pieces of salt, other grains of salt. And the church, to influence the world, must be collective salt, you see.  It’s not enough to be all alone at it. We’ve got to be at it together, collective influence … 

So the saved are the salt.  The verb here, este, stresses being.  The stress is on being; it’s on what we are and what we continue to be.  And we are the salt, and we continue to be the salt, and we are the only salt in the world.  Let me add this, it’s not what we should be, it’s what we are.  Like it or not, you’re the salt of the earth.  The only question is whether you’re salty or whether you’ve lost your salt flavor.  You are the salt. You either have a savor or you don’t.

But the idea isn’t, “Please be salt,” it is, “You are salt.”  The only question is whether you’re salty ... If you are a believer, you’re salt. 

Jesus said that believers are the light of the world, saying that a city on a hill cannot be hidden (verse 14).

As with salt — applied with many grains rather than just one — we are called to come together as spiritual lights in a world of sinful darkness.

Henry reminds us that Jesus called Himself the light of the world:

Christ called himself the Light of the world (John 8 12), and they are workers together with him, and have some of his honour put upon them. Truly the light is sweet, it is welcome; the light of the first day of the world was so, when it shone out of darkness; so is the morning light of every day; so is the gospel, and those that spread it, to all sensible people. The world sat in darkness, Christ raised up his disciples to shine in it; and, that they may do so, from him they borrow and derive their light.

MacArthur says that grains of salt and many lights in a city on a hill communicate the same notion of the faithful working together to spread the Gospel:

“The light” is the light…  He uses the illustration of a city. It’s many lights that light a city, its many grains of salt that affect a substance

Now beloved, we are the light and we are the salt That’s just the way it is.  We’ve been separated from the world totally.  In 1 John chapter 5, a most significant text, verse 4, “Whatever is born of God overcomes the world.  And this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith.  And who is he that overcomes the world but he that believeth that Jesus is the son of God?”  When you believed in Christ, you overcame the world, you stepped out of the darkness.  Colossians 1, “You were translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of His dear Son,” and the kingdom of His Son is light.

And you say, “John, what does ‘light’ mean?”  It means the truth and the life of God revealed.  We are no longer in the darkness; we are in the light, and we are the light of the world.  Reflecting the light of the sun, we are moons, that the world may know the truth of God.  So we are salt to retard the corruption and we’re light to manifest the truth.  One is negative, one is positive, right?  Salt retards corruption and light manifests truth.

MacArthur ties the Beatitudes into verses 13 through 16:

So our Lord connects — watch this great blessedness through verse 12 with great responsibility, verses 13-16.  If God is so gracious, verses 3-12, to put you in the kingdom and to give you everything He gives you: the kingdom of heaven, verse 3, comfort verse 4, inherit the earth, verse 5, fill you up with righteousness, verse 6, give you mercy, verse 7, allow you to see God, verse 8, call you a son, verse 9, and give you a great reward, verse 12.  If you have all of that blessing, believe me, you’ll have responsibility tooAnd the responsibility is to live as salt and light.

And it’s challenging and exciting, not easy, but vastly rewarding We must live above the world.  You sprinkle salt, don’t you, from above on.  You shed light from above on. That’s what Christ is saying.

MacArthur continues:

Character is the issue. The character described in the Beatitudes makes it possible for us to affect the world

The emphatic is here; we are the only salt and we are the only light the world will ever know

Listen, the way to change the world isn’t to change it politically. The way to change the world isn’t to rewrite the laws. It isn’t to march, and it isn’t to try to use all of the technical paraphernalia for altering society. The way to change the world, people, is just to infiltrate it with godliness, and righteousness, and holiness, and affect it from the inside out. Now those other things aren’t wrong, but they are going to be powerless, unless our lives are what they ought to be.

Think about it this way. Never has the church been more involved in social action in our country. Never has the church been more involved in social action in recent history in our country. Never have we been so preoccupied with endeavoring to see Christianity in government. And what is the result? A society that’s more immoral than it’s ever been, because that’s not the way to do it. The way to do it is the influence of a godly life.

Jesus said that no one puts a light under a bushel basket but on the lampstand so that it lights the whole house (verse 15).

Recall that, in Revelation, the seven churches are referred to as lampstands. The idea is that the Church is a bright beacon of light, preaching salvation.

MacArthur has other examples of light, especially from the Old Testament:

If you study the Bible, you’ll find that light is related to the knowledge of God. Light is related to the true knowledge of God. For example, just a couple of Scriptures. In Psalm 36:9, it says this: “For with Thee is the fountain of life; in Thy light shall we see light.” So the first thing we have to realize is that God is light – right? – 1 John, chapter 1. “In Thee is the fountain of life, and in Thy light shall we see light.” God is light; so if we are to be light, then we must manifest God.

In Psalm 119:105 it says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a” – what? – “light to my path.” God is light; the Word is light …

Psalm 27:1, “The Lord is my” – what? – “light and my salvation.” So the fact is, if you want to know what light is in the Bible, it’s just a comprehensive term referring to all of God’s revelation: the revelation of Himself, of His Word, and of His Son. That’s light. And so we are to proclaim the message of light in a dark world, as well as to be salt in a decaying one.

In that same way, Jesus said, we believers must let our individual light shine before others that they may see our good works — fruits of faith rather than legalistic actions — and give glory to our Father in heaven (verse 16).

Henry explains:

See here, First, How our light must shine—by doing such good works as men may see, and may approve of; such works as are of good report among them that are without, and as will therefore give them cause to think well of Christianity. We must do good works that may be seen to the edification of others, but not that they may be seen to our own ostentation; we are bid to pray in secret, and what lies between God and our souls, must be kept to ourselves; but that which is of itself open and obvious to the sight of men, we must study to make congruous to our profession, and praiseworthy, Phil 4 8. Those about us must not only hear our good words, but see our good works; that they may be convinced that religion is more than a bare name, and that we do not only make a profession of it, but abide under the power of it.

Secondly, For what end our light must shine—”That those who see your good works may be brought, not to glorify you (which was the things the Pharisees aimed at, and it spoiled all their performances), but to glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Note, The glory of God is the great thing we must aim at in every thing we do in religion, 1 Pet 4 11. In this centre the lines of all our actions must meet. We must not only endeavor to glorify God ourselves, but we must do all we can to bring others to glorify him. The sight of our good works will do this, by furnishing them, 1. With matter for praise. “Let them see your good works, that they may see the power of God’s grace in you, and may thank him for it, and give him the glory of it, who has given such power unto men.” 2. With motives of piety. “Let them see your good works, that they may be convinced of the truth and excellency of the Christian religion, may be provoked by a holy emulation to imitate your good works, and so may glorify God.” Note, The holy, regular, and exemplary conversation of the saints, may do much towards the conversion of sinners; those who are unacquainted with religion, may hereby be brought to know what it is. Examples teach. And those who are prejudiced against it, may hereby by brought in love with it, and thus there is a winning virtue in a godly conversation.

MacArthur gives us two examples of how salt and light manifested themselves through believers. True believers have influence on others:

Andrew Murray evidently lived a holy life before his children.  I was reading about Andrew Murray, a great man of God, and about the effect he had on his children.  And the biographer says, “Eleven of his children grew to adult life.  Five of the six sons became ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Four of his daughters became ministers’ wives.”  Not bad, nine out of eleven.  Even the second generation made a good showing.  Ten grandsons became ministers of Christ and thirteen became missionaries.  Influence.

President Woodrow Wilson told this story.  He said, “I was in a very common place.  I was sitting in a barber chair when I became aware that a personality had entered the room.  A man had come quietly in upon the same errand as myself, to have his hair cut, and sat in the chair next to me.  Every word the man uttered, though it was not in the least didactic, showed a personal interest in the man who was serving him And before I got through with what was being done for me, I was aware that I had attended an evangelistic service, because Mr. D.L. Moody was in that chair.

“I purposely lingered in the room after he had left and noted the singular effect that his visit had brought upon the barber shop.  They talked in undertones. They didn’t know his name, but they knew that something had elevated their thoughts.  And I felt that I left that place as I should have left the place of worship My admiration and esteem for Mr. Moody became very deep indeed.” Influence. Influence.

What message do you leave the world?  When you pass by, what are you saying? 

MacArthur says that what Jesus called His Twelve to do went against the whole religious system of His time:

He was really calling for something new. He was saying, “You know, you’re a part of a religious system that’s fouled up. And if you live according to kingdom character in the Beatitudes, then you’ve got to be different, and you’ve got to be light so that they can all see it. And that isn’t easy, because they’re not going to like what they see.”

It’s always the fear of persecution that makes us hesitant; we’re always a little afraid. And so after the Beatitude of “Blessed are the persecuted,” He has to reinforce the fact that “Don’t you put your light under a bushel; you put it there where everybody can see it, so that the whole world will know the truth of God.”

Verse 16 personalizes it. “Let your light so shine, so shine before men, that they will see your good works.” Stop right there. Let it shine, people, that’s all He’s saying. It’s a simple message … But kalos used here means good in terms of beauty. It’s the manifest beauty; not just that they’re good in and of themselves, but they have a beauty about them, an attractiveness, they are winsome; and that’s the word he uses. In other words, “Let men see your winsomeness. Let them see your beauty. Let them see your attractiveness, your quality.” It isn’t just the good deed itself, it’s the beauty that it manifests.

Then Jesus shifts to discussing divine law and righteousness.

Because Jesus was a religious revolutionary who wanted people to return to a proper faith rather than pursue that of the Jewish establishment, He said that He came not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfil both (verse 17).

MacArthur explains:

Tremendous concept, people, if you can just grasp this. Every single thing in the Old Testament points to Christ. And so Jesus is saying, “Look, I know what you’re thinking. I know you’re thinking I’m going to set this law aside. I’m not. I’m going to lift it up higher than it is today, and I’m going to reveal the hypocrites. You’re thinking that I’m going to put it all away, and we’re not going to have any of this hassle anymore, and we can just be free and easy, and it’ll all be wonderful. I’m telling you, God’s standard hasn’t changed. No part of the sacred Scripture will ever be destroyed or annulled. It will be fulfilled, and I Myself will fulfill it.”

Tremendous statement. What a claim. What a shattering claim, that He alone would fulfill the whole Old Testament. Shocking. Here was the one for whom it was all written. Here is the object of the whole Old Testament. It all points to Jesus Christ. In it’s God-ordained origin, it can’t be annulled; it has to be fulfilled.

MacArthur elaborates on the law and the prophets:

Moses went from the Ten Commandments, and under God’s inspiration, developed the ceremonial, the judicial systems, the whole outworking of the law in the life of the people.

And then the prophets came along. Now what was their job? Their job was to remind the people that the law was still incumbent, the law was still binding. It all goes back to the Ten Commandments. They were then basically God’s law. They were expanded in the statutes and ordinances that Moses gave in the Pentateuch; and then the rest of the Old Testament, the writings of the prophets, was to call upon the people to be obedient to these standards.

Now we can take the law of God and divide it into three parts: the moral law, the judicial law, and the ceremonial law. Now watch this. The moral law was for all men; the judicial law, just for Israel; the ceremonial law, for Israel’s worship of God. So the moral law encompasses all men, narrows it down to Israel in the judicial law, and to the worship of Israel toward God in the ceremonial law.

Now stay with me. The moral law is based in the Ten Commandments, the great moral principles laid down once and forever; the rest of the moral law is built upon that. The judicial law was the legislative law given for the functioning of Israel as a nation – very important. In other words, God said to Israel, “I want to set you apart from the rest of the world. I want you to be different. I want you to be unique, so you’ll have judicial laws. That’ll mean that you’re going to live with each other in a different way, you’re going to live with the nations around you in a different way,” this very unique law of judicial law to govern their behavior. Thirdly, the ceremonial law dealt with the temple ritual and the worship of God.

Now you say, “Which law is the Lord speaking of?” Now watch this one. He is speaking of all three, people. Some people say He’s just talking about the moral law. No, He’s not. He came to fulfill the whole thing, whether it was the moral law, the outgrowth of the moral law in Israel, the judicial law, or the law of worship, the ceremonial law; He came to fulfill every bit of it. It was all authored by God; it is all preeminent – all the principles, all the patterns, all the prophecies, all the types, all the symbols, all the pictures. Everything in the Old Testament is authored by God, and it all is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

So we see, first of all, that the law is preeminent, because it is authored by God. Secondly, the law is preeminent, because it is affirmed by the prophets. It is affirmed by the prophets. Look at verse 17. “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets” …

First of all then, the law of God is binding, because it is authored by God. Secondly, it is affirmed by the prophets. Thirdly, accomplished by Christ. And this is the heart of the matter. It is accomplished by Christ.

For Christians, the Epistles clarify the moral law further, because they tell us how to live a holy life:

And in the Epistles, through His Holy Spirit, He clarified it even more, and enriched it even more.

Jesus fulfilled all three types of law by dying on the cross:

When He died on the cross – now watch this – when He died on the cross, that was the final, full rejection by Israel of her Messiah, right? That was it. And you know what? That was the end of God dealing with that nation as a nation. The judicial law that He gave to Israel passed away when God no longer dealt with them as a nation anymore, and Jesus built His church. Praise God, someday He’s going to go back and redeem that nation again, and deal with them again as a nation.

But for this time, when Jesus died on the cross, the judicial law came to a screeching halt. There was no more national people of God. There would be a new man, cut out of Jews and Gentiles, and it would be called the church, and the judicial law came to an end. That’s why Matthew 21:43 says, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you.”

Now let me add this: keep in mind that the foundations of the judicial law are in the moral law, so that the divine principles behind it still exist. They’re still binding, they’re still there; but the judicial law related to Israel was set aside when Jesus died, because that was the full and final rejection of their Messiah.

What about the moral law, did He fulfill the moral law? Sure He did. In what way? In the way we mentioned earlier. Every rule God ever made, He obeyed, right? Every precept God ever laid down, He fulfilled. He never disobeyed anything that God established. Yes, He filled up the judicial law in the sense that He brought the whole thing to its ultimate climax. He allowed Israel, God did, to go the way they chose, and they ended their identity as His people at that point, until a future time, and summed up the judicial law, and it was over. And Jesus, by the living of a perfect life, fulfilled the moral law.

That leaves only one other: the ceremonial law. Listen, how did He fulfill the ceremonial law? Oh, this is fantastic. Let me tell you: He died on a cross.

Now listen to me; this is the last point, but I want to make it, and I want to make it good. He died on a cross, and when He died on that cross, the whole ceremonial system came to an end. In fact, when He died, it says the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom. The Holy of Holies was unbared, and God was saying, “The whole Levitical, priestly, judicial system is over. It’s all over.” And so He fulfilled totally the judicial law, in a negative way, by being the victim of their final rejection. He fulfilled the moral law in the way He lived, and the ceremonial law in the way He died.

That torn veil meant that, thanks to Christ’s one sufficient sacrifice on the cross, mankind was finally reconciled to God and that we could approach Him directly, no longer through priests, who themselves could not stay in the Holy of Holies longer than a few seconds themselves.

There is one further fulfilment of the law, and that is Christ’s resurrection, which gives believers the promise of eternal life.

Henry has an interesting note on the word ‘fulfil’:

To fill up the defects of it, and so to complete and perfect it. Thus the word plerosai properly signifies. If we consider the law as a vessel that had some water in it before, he did not come to pour out the water, but to fill the vessel up to the brim; or, as a picture that is first rough-drawn, displays some outlines only of the piece intended, which are afterwards filled up; so Christ made an improvement of the law and the prophets by his additions and explications The gospel is the time of reformation (Heb 9 10), not the repeal of the law, but the amendment of it, and, consequently, its establishment.

Jesus said that, not until heaven and earth pass away, shall one jot or tittle of the law remain unfulfilled (verse 17).

This is the King James Version of that verse:

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

MacArthur reminds us that not every prophecy has yet been fulfilled:

He fulfilled some; ah, but some are yet to be fulfilled. Some of the prophecies haven’t been fulfilled yet, have they? Some are still future. But I’ll tell you what He says. Verse 18 he says this: “Not one jot or tittle shall in any way pass from this law, until every single bit of it is fulfilled.”

This means that God’s law is permanent:

The permanence of the law.

The Jews were looking for a more lax system. They couldn’t keep up with the scribes, and they couldn’t keep up with the Pharisees; and, body, they were hoping somebody’d come and drop the standards a little bit so they could make it. And the Lord Jesus Christ lifts the standard even higher, and then He just wipes out the Pharisees and the scribes for their hypocritical approach to God’s law.

You see, what they were doing; they had substituted human tradition for the law of God, and Jesus came in and just wiped the human tradition away, just cleaned it off. The judicial law was fulfilled, for the most part; the ceremonial law was fulfilled, for the most part. Even some of the moral laws; I said the Sabbath was fulfilled. But God’s righteous standards never changed, and so He says, just so they don’t ever forget it, “Nothing is going to pass, nothing, until it’s all fulfilled.”

MacArthur explains jot and tittle:

“Jot” is really a representation of a Hebrew letter. In the Hebrew, there is a letter called “yodh” – Y-O-D-H if you want a transliteration. Yodh is similar to an apostrophe, that’s all, an apostrophe. It’s a letter, however. It’s pronounced as a “y” sound. And a yodh is the smallest letter. In the Greek language, the little, tiny “iota,” obviously coming from the same kind of root: iota – Greek students call a iota subscript, where you take an “i” out of a word, and for certain reasons in the Greek language, they drop it under another letter, and it appears as another little, tiny apostrophe. And what He’s saying is, “Not the tiniest Hebrew letter, not the tiniest Greek letter shall pass from this law, till all fulfilled.”

People say, “Well, we don’t have to believe in an inerrant, infallible Bible, that every word is inspired by God, do we?” Yes. In fact, every yodh and every iota. When God gave His Word in the original manuscripts, every jot was inspired by Him.

And then He talks about a “tittle.” This is interesting. I don’t know how to show you what it is other than saying it’s a keraia, which is a very small item. I guess the best illustration would be, it’s the difference between an “e” and an “f.” An “f” is a line with two lines on it running perpendicular to it, and an “e” has three. And that last, little, tiny thing makes the difference between an “e” and an “f.”

And that’s what Jesus is saying. That little tiny keraia, that little serif that is on the tag-end of a letter that separates, if you will, a bet from a kaf. A bet looks like this, like a “c.” A kaf looks the same way, only it’s got a little, tiny line on the edge of it. And He’s saying, “Not one little, tiny serif that distinguishes a bet from a kaf will be removed from My law until the whole thing is fulfilled. Did I come to set it aside the law of God? Not on your life.”

Is this still God’s authoritative Word? Is it still God’s Holy Word for us? You’d better believe it. Jesus fulfilled part of it, but God’s moral law has never been set aside; and it’ll all be there until it’s fulfilled, and it’ll all be there till heaven and earth pass away. Conversely, folks, heaven and earth isn’t going to pass away till every single element in this Book is fulfilled.

Jesus went on to press His point by saying that whoever breaks one of God’s commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven but whoever obeys them and teaches others to obey will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (verse 19).

MacArthur says this verse points to the pertinence of God’s law:

He reiterates the preeminence of it in verse 17, and then the permanence of it in verse 18, and then the pertinence of it in verse 19, and finally the purpose of it in verse 20. Now they were looking for a king, and He was a King, but they were looking for a political king who would bring an external kingdom; and He was a spiritual King who would bring an internal kingdom. So instead of talking about a new economy, instead of talking about a new politic, He kept talking about new character; that’s what He was talking about in the Beatitudes. Instead of changing the outside, He wanted to change the inside.

And here, He tells them that the key to a change on the inside, the key to qualifying to fulfill the responsibility to be in His kingdom is the Old Testament Word of God. “It still stands,” He says. “Righteousness is still defined on God’s terms. God hasn’t changed His mind.”

MacArthur explains the words Jesus used:

The word “break” is a very interesting word. It’s the word luō. It’s a very, very common word in the Greek. It means “to loose,” “to release,” “to nullify,” or “to destroy.” And the idea here would be that if you loose yourself or release yourself from an obligation to obey God’s least command, you’ll be called the least in the kingdom. But it’s kind of interesting to see the word here because of the word that went earlier with it in verse 17.

For there it said, Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law.” And this is another form of that same word luō. Jesus said, “I did not come to loose the law; and if you do it, you’ll be considered the least in the kingdom,” only Jesus used a more intense word. Jesus used the same verb, only with a kata on the front, which intensifies it. And what He is saying is this – now watch it: “I did not come to utterly nullify, I did not come to utterly destroy, I did not come to utterly devastate and abrogate the law. But if you even loose one little part of it, you’ll be called the least in the kingdom.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “I did not come to destroy at all, but the temptation to the believer is going to be to fool around with parts of it, and set them aside when they don’t accommodate what we want to do.”

… And if you go around breaking God’s command, you won’t be necessarily be kicked out of His kingdom. That’s not the idea. But what’ll happen is you’ll become a person He can’t use, a person He can’t bless, a person He can’t reward

And that’s why John said, “Look to yourselves that you lose not the things that you have wrought, but that you receive a full reward.” You can spend the first half of your Christian life gaining it, and the second half giving it back up. And so the Bible says, “Even the least commandment, when violated, makes you the least individual.” You see, the reason is this: If you break any part of God’s law, you’ve broken the whole thing, right?

As far as teaching others to break commandments, this can be done not only in words but also by example:

And if the words aren’t right, and the example isn’t right, and you’re breaking the commandments, you’re just decreasing your place in His kingdom. As Isaiah 9:15 puts it, “The ancient and the honorable, he is the head; and the prophet that teaches lies, he is the tail,” Isaiah 9:15. If you’re going to teach, teach the truth or don’t teach. And if you’re in the kingdom, live it, don’t break it.

So though Christ did not come to literally and totally abolish the law, there are believers who, by their own self-will and sin, set it aside – something Christ Himself wouldn’t even do. And then they teach others to do it. You know, the Pharisees were guilty of that. So are many others.

So are many people today. And in Acts 20, Paul said, “The thing I fear when I leave is that grievous wolves shall come in, not sparing the flock; and of your own selves shall teachers rise, teaching perverse things.” The church has always been attacked by heretics on the outside and heretics on the inside. Oh, how they are condemned in Scripture. “No,” – He says – “you can’t set it aside.”

On the other hand, great is the reward for those who keep God’s commands and teach others to do so.

Henry says:

Those are truly honourable, and of great account in the church of Christ, who lay out themselves by their life and doctrine to promote the purity and strictness of practical religion; who both do and teach that which is good … those who speak from experience, who live up to what they preach, are truly great; they honour God, and God will honour them (1 Sam 2 30), and hereafter they shall shine as the stars in the kingdom of our Father.

Jesus ends this section of the Sermon on the Mount by saying that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees in order for us to enter the kingdom of heaven (verse 20).

MacArthur says this verse is about the law’s purpose. The purpose is to show that we cannot fulfil God’s commandments by ourselves, as the scribes and the Pharisees believed.

MacArthur explains:

What is the purpose? Verse 20 gives it to us really by not saying it, but by implying it. “I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The purpose of God’s law was to show you that you had to have more righteousness than you could come up with on your own. That’s the point of it. That’s the purpose. Galatians 3:24 articulates it with this statement. “Wherefore” – listen – “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ that we might be justified by faith.” The law was the schoolmaster or the disciplinarian to bring us to Christ. The law was the perfect standard which would show us our sin. That was its purpose. The law was to show us that we couldn’t do it on our own, that even the best – the scribes and the Pharisees, with all of their religiosity, with all of their trappings, with all of their ceremony and all of their ritual could not gain the righteousness required to enter the kingdom.

In other words, if you want it simply, folks, the law was given with the purpose of frustrating us, showing us our inadequacy. The law wasn’t to tell us how good we are, the law was to show us how rotten we were. And that’s why the man in the corner in Luke 18, beating on his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” went home justified, because he responded to what God’s law intended to show him: that he was a sinner. Whereas, the other man, who was so self-righteous, saw really not at all the meaning of God’s law, for he never responded to it in the way that God had intended.

And so this is really the theme of His whole sermon in Matthew 5, 6 and 7. It’s true righteousness. The Old Testament is the source of true righteousness. The Old Testament gives the absolute standard. And so this great sermon and from the Beatitudes to the final illustration in chapter 7 of the houses built on sand and rock, the whole sermon is a masterful sermon on the righteous truths that govern a man’s relationship with God. Because there was a phony system in existence at the time and Jesus wanted it known from the very beginning that the standard of righteousness that He required, that God required, was not available to them under the present system.

May all reading this enjoy a blessed Sunday.

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The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany is January 29, 2023.

Readings for Year A can be found here.

The Gospel is as follows (emphases mine):

Matthew 5:1-12

5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (as specified below).

This is another long post. John MacArthur preached ten sermons on these verses in 1979, one verse a week for the most part.

Jesus gave this sermon in Galilee. When He saw the crowds, He went up a mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him (verse 1).

Then, He began to speak and taught them (verse 2).

Recall that last week’s reading for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Matthew 4:12-23, ended as follows:

4:23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Keep that in mind while reading the rest of this post, which is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), with the eight Beatitudes.

Matthew Henry’s commentary sets the scene beautifully:

The many miraculous cures wrought by Christ in Galilee, which we read of in the close of the foregoing chapter, were intended to make way for this sermon, and to dispose people to receive instructions from one in whom there appeared so much of a divine power and goodness; and, probably, this sermon was the summary, or rehearsal, of what he had preached up and down in the synagogues of Galilee. His text was, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. This is a sermon on the former part of that text, showing what it is to repent; it is to reform, both in judgment and practice; and here he tells us wherein, in answer to that question (Mal 3 7), Wherein shall we return?

Henry elaborates on these verses, using contrasts from the Old Testament to illustrate what a welcome occasion this is. Note that Zebulun was mentioned in last week’s first reading, Isaiah 9:1-4:

II. The place was a mountain in Galilee. As in other things, so in this, our Lord Jesus was but ill accommodated; he had no convenient place to preach in, any more than to lay his head on. While the scribes and Pharisees had Moses’ chair to sit in, with all possible ease, honour, and state, and there corrupted the law; our Lord Jesus, the great Teacher of truth, is driven out to the desert, and finds no better a pulpit than a mountain can afford; and not one of the holy mountains neither, not one of the mountains of Zion, but a common mountain; by which Christ would intimate that there is no such distinguishing holiness of places now, under the gospel, as there was under the law; but that it is the will of God that men should pray and preach every where, any where, provided it be decent and convenient. Christ preached this sermon, which was an exposition of the law, upon a mountain, because upon a mountain the law was given; and this was also a solemn promulgation of the Christian law. But observe the difference: when the law was given, the Lord came down upon the mountain; now the Lord went up: then, he spoke in thunder and lightning; now, in a still small voice: then the people were ordered to keep their distance; now they are invited to draw near: a blessed change! If God’s grace and goodness are (as they certainly are) his glory, then the glory of the gospel is the glory that excels, for grace and truth came by Jesus Christ, 2 Cor 3 7; Heb 12 18, etc. It was foretold of Zebulun and Issachar, two of the tribes of Galilee (Deut 33 19), that they shall call the people to the mountain; to this mountain we are called, to learn to offer the sacrifices of righteousness. Now was this the mountain of the Lord, where he taught us his ways, Isa 2 2, 3; Mic 4 1, 2.

III. The auditors were his disciples, who came unto him; came at his call, as appears by comparing Mark 3 13, Luke 6 13. To them he directed his speech, because they followed him for love and learning, while others attended him only for cures. He taught them, because they were willing to be taught (the meek will he teach his way); because they would understand what he taught, which to others was foolishness; and because they were to teach others; and it was therefore requisite that they should have a clear and distinct knowledge of these things themselves. The duties prescribed in this sermon were to be conscientiously performed by all those that would enter into that kingdom of heaven which they were sent to set up, with hope to have the benefit of it. But though this discourse was directed to the disciples, it was in the hearing of the multitude; for it is said (ch. 7 28), The people were astonished. No bounds were set about this mountain, to keep the people off, as were about mount Sinai (Exod 19 12); for, through Christ, we have access to God, not only to speak to him, but to hear from him. Nay, he had an eye to the multitude, in preaching this sermon. When the fame of his miracles had brought a vast crowd together, he took the opportunity of so great a confluence of people, to instruct them. Note, It is an encouragement to a faithful minister to cast the net of the gospel where there are a great many fishes, in hope that some will be caught. The sight of a multitude puts life into a preacher, which yet must arise from a desire of their profit, not his own praise.

IV. The solemnity of his sermon is intimated in that word, when he was set. Christ preached many times occasionally, and by interlocutory discourses; but this was a set sermon, kathisantos autou, when he had placed himself so as to be best heard. He sat down as a Judge or Lawgiver. It intimates with what sedateness and composure of mind the things of God should be spoken and heard. He sat, that the scriptures might be fulfilled (Mal 3 3), He shall sit as a refiner, to purge away the dross, the corrupt doctrines of the sons of Levi. He sat as in the throne, judging right (Ps 9 4); for the word he spoke shall judge us. That phrase, He opened his mouth, is only a Hebrew periphrasis of speaking, as Job 3 1. Yet some think it intimates the solemnity of this discourse; the congregation being large, he raised his voice, and spoke louder than usual. He had spoken long by his servants the prophets, and opened their mouths (Ezek 3 27; 24 27; 33 22); but now he opened his own, and spoke with freedom, as one having authority. One of the ancients has this remark upon it; Christ taught much without opening his mouth. that is, by his holy and exemplary life; nay, he taught, when, being led as a lamb to the slaughter, he opened not his mouth, but now he opened his mouth, and taught, that the scriptures might be fulfilled, Prov 8 1, 2, 6. Doth not wisdom cry—cry on the top of high places? And the opening of her lips shall be right things. He taught them, according to the promise (Isa 54 13), All thy children shall be taught of the Lord; for this purpose he had the tongue of the learned (Isa 50 4), and the Spirit of the Lord, Isa 61 1. He taught them, what was the evil they should abhor, and what was the good they should abide and abound in; for Christianity is not a matter of speculation, but is designed to regulate the temper of our minds and the tenour of our conversations; gospel-time is a time of reformation (Heb 9 10); and by the gospel we must be reformed, must be made good, must be made better. The truth, as it is in Jesus, is the truth which is according to godliness, Tit 1 1.

We all know the eight Beatitudes, however, as we go through them, we will see that one builds on the other. Jesus did not randomly arrange these. Nor did He intend them to be socio-political platitudes. He never preached about politics or social conditions.

John MacArthur points out:

There’s no politics in the Sermon on the Mount. None. There is not one reference to the social, political aspect of the kingdom made here, not one. The Jews were so concerned about the politics and the social life. Jesus makes no reference to that at all. The stress – I want you to get this – the stress is on being. That’s the word you’re going to have to see. The stress is on being. It’s not on ruling or possessing it is on being

This is a different kind of a kingdom. It even advocates persecution without retaliation and blesses those who live that way. It’s a spiritual kingdom. So the political aspect of this message was devastating. It was absolutely everything was the opposite of what they expected a Messiah to say

What he was saying is this, “My kingdom is inside.” Do you see? It’s inside. That’s the whole point. That’s the whole message of Jesus to the world. That’s the whole basis of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s inside, not outside. Not outside rituals, not outside philosophy, not outside location or monasteries or any of that stuff, not outside activism, it’s inside.

Jesus said that blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (verse 3).

MacArthur gives us the meaning of ‘blessed’, which runs through the Bible and our prayers:

In Matthew chapter 5 through 7, our Lord is establishing and counter standard of living, counter to everything the world knows and practices, a new approach to living that results in blessedness, makarios.  And we saw that this makarios is deep inner happiness, a deep and genuine sense of blessedness, a bliss that the world cannot offer, not produced by the world, not produced by circumstances, and not subject to change by the world or circumstances.  It is not produced externally.  It cannot be touched externally.

The promise of Christ, then, in the Sermon on the Mount is at the very beginning.  He is saying if you live by these standards you will know blessedness.  And so in verse 3, it’s blessed, in verse 4, it’s blessed.  In verse 5, blessed.  Verse 6, verse 7, verse 8, verse 9, 10, 11, and finally, as a result of all this blessedness, verse 12, rejoice and be exceeding glad.

The whole Sermon on the Mount introduces itself with a promise of blessedness, happiness, deep, inner satisfaction.  Now we said also last time that this blessedness, this well being, this bliss, this happiness, in which believers live and which they enjoy, is really a gift of God.  For makarios or blessedness is characteristic of God

The greatest possible understanding of the term “blessed” comes when you understand that God is blessed.  So happy is the people whose God is the Lord.  Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord, for he, above all, is blessed.  “Blessed be God,” says the Bible.  “Blessed be the Lord Jesus Christ.”  And if they are blessed, if they have this deep inner bliss, this deep sense of contentment and blessedness because of the virtue of divine nature, then only those who partake in that divine nature can know that same blessedness.

MacArthur points out — as does Henry’s commentary — that each beatitude is a spiritual paradox. In other words, how can we be without and yet have so much?

MacArthur says:

Now as you look at the Beatitudes, you’ll see that they’re like sacred paradoxes They’re almost given in absolute contrast to everything the world knows And let me just say a word that I want as a little footnote here.  You see the word “blessing.”  The word “blessing” or “blessed” has an opposite word in the Bible.  The opposite of makarios is ouai and we translate it “woe.”  The opposite of blessing is cursing.  The opposite of blessed, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount “blessed” and he turned around to the Pharisees later and said, “Woe unto you.”  Those are opposites. 

And let me hasten to say this.  The word “blessed” and the word “woe,” neither one of them are really a wish.  They are a judgmental pronunciation Jesus is saying, “I” – he’s not saying, “I wish you blessedness.”  He is saying, “Blessed is the man who goes this way, does this, thinks this way.”  And other places, “Woe to the man who does this.”  They are judicial pronunciations.  They are not simply wishes.

MacArthur gives us a sense of progression in the ordering of the Beatitudes:

We see a sequence.  Look with me quickly at verse 3.  First we see the poor in spirit.  “Poor in spirit” is the right attitude towards sin, which leads to mourning, in verse 4, which leads after you’ve seen your sinfulness and you’ve mourned, to a meekness, a sense of humility, then to a seeking and hunger and thirst for righteousness.  You can see the progression. 

It is important to remember that the verse says ‘poor in spirit’, not simply ‘poor’:

When you have two records in the Bible in the Gospels, you compare them.  “Blessed are the poor.”  What poor?  There are all kinds of poverty, right?  You could be poor in terms of money.  You could be poor in terms of your education.  You could be poor in terms of friends.  You could be poor in terms of a lot of things.  So when you read Luke say, “Blessed are the poor,” and you find Matthew, “Blessed are are the poor in spirit,” you make the conclusion simply that Matthew tells us what kind of poverty Luke was referring to.  That’s all.  It’s no big problem.  We just put the two together, comparing scripture with scripture.

‘Poor in spirit’ implies humility, the sort of humility that depends on God’s grace, says MacArthur:

Nobody yet ever entered God’s kingdom on the basis of pride.  Poverty of spirit is the only way in.  The door to the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ is very low and the only people who come in crawl. 

Jesus begins by saying, “There’s a mountain you have to scale.  There are heights you have to climb.  There is a standard you must attain, but you are incapable of doing it, and the sooner you realize it the sooner you’ll be on your way to finding it.”  In other words, he’s saying you can’t be filled until you’re empty You can’t be worthwhile until you’re worthless.

You know, it amazes me that in modern Christianity today there is so little of the self emptying concept I see a lot of books on how to be filled with joy and how to be filled and how to be filled with this and how to be filled with the spirit and so forth.  There’s lots of books on how to be filled, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book on how to empty yourself of yourself

You know, if you don’t have poverty of spirit, beloved, you might as well expect fruit to grow without a tree as the graces of the Christian life to grow without humility.  They can’t.  As long as we’re not poor in spirit, we can’t receive grace Now even at the beginning, you can’t even become a Christian unless you’re poor in spirit. 

And as you live your Christian life you’ll never know the other graces of the Christian life as long as you violate poverty of spirit.  And this is tough.  Jesus is saying, “Start here.  Happiness is for the humble.”  Happiness is for the humble.  Until we are poor in spirit, Christ is never precious to us.  Because we can’t see him for the looking at ourselves.  Before we see our own wants and our own needs and our own desperation, we never see the matchless worth of Christ.  Until we know how really damned we are, we can’t appreciate how really glorious he is.  Until we comprehend how doomed we are, we can’t understand how wondrous is his love to redeem us.  Until we see our poverty, we cannot understand his riches. 

And so out of the carcass comes the honey.  It is in our deadness that we come alive.  And no man ever comes to Jesus Christ, no man ever enters the kingdom who doesn’t crawl with a terrible sense of sinfulness, repentance

MacArthur examines the meaning of ‘poor’ in the Greek:

Now let’s take that term.  The word “poor,” ptchos, interesting word.  From a verb – now watch this one – the verb in the Greek means “a shrinking from something or someone to cower and cringe like a beggar.”  That’s what it means.  Like you just kind of cringe and cower like a beggar does. 

Classical Greek uses this word to refer to one who is reduced to beggary, who crouches in a corner of the dark wall to beg for alms.  And the reason he crouches and cowers is because he doesn’t want to be seen.  He is so desperately ashamed to even allow his identity to be known.  Beggars have all that stuff piled on, all those things pulled over their face, and they reach like this, lest they should be known.

By the way, the word “poor” here, the very word, is the word used in Luke 16 when it says, “Lazarus the beggar.”  That is what the word means.  It is not just poor, it is begging poor And by the way, there is another word in the Bible for normal poverty, pensPens means you’re – generally and sometimes there’s an overlap – but generally pens means you’re so poor you have to work just to maintain your living. 

Ptchos means you’re so poor you have to beg.  You’re reduced to a cringing, cowering beggar.  Pens you can earn your own living.  You can earn your own sustenance.  Ptchos, you are totally dependent on the gift of somebody else.  All you’ve got going for you, no skill, no nothing.  In many cases, you’re crippled, you’re blind.  You’re deaf.  You’re dumb.  You can’t function in society and you sit in the corner with your shamed arm in the air, pleading for grace and mercy from somebody else.  You have no resource in yourself to even live.  Total dependence on somebody else. 

MacArthur moves on to ‘in spirit’:

Well, what does it mean in spirit?  Let me talk about that for a minute.  It means with reference to the spirit, which is the inner part of man, not the body, which is the outer part.  That’s all.  He’s begging on the inside, not necessarily on the outside.

Isaiah put it this way.  Isaiah 66:2.  “But to this man will I look.”  Here’s God talking.  Now listen.  “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at my word.”  It’s the man who shakes on the inside because of his destitution.  Psalm 34:18 put it this way.  “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.”  Psalm 51:17.  “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, Oh God, thou wilt not despise.”

It’s the broken and the contrite.  “Blessed are the beggars,” says Jesus.  Blessed are those whose spirit is destitute.  Blessed are the spiritual paupers, the spiritually empty, the spiritually bankrupt who cringe in a corner and cry out to God for mercy.  They are the happy ones.  Why?  Because they’re the only ones who tapped the real resource for happiness.  They’re the only ones who ever know God.  They’re the only ones who ever know God’s blessedness.  And theirs is the kingdom.

James put it this way.  It’s not just the Sermon on the Mount, James said it.  He said in James 4:10, “Humble yourselves in the sight of God and he will – what? “ – lift you up.”  The poverty here is not a poverty against which the will rebels, but it’s a poverty under which the will bows in deep dependence and submission I’m afraid this is a rather unpopular doctrine in the church today.  We emphasize celebrities and experts and superstars and rich, famous Christians.  But happiness is for the humble

The sum of the great truth is simply stated.  The first principle of the Sermon on the Mount is that you can’t do it by yourself.  There’s a new lifestyle to live and that new lifestyle promises eternal happiness for you, but you can’t do it by yourself, so that the only standard for living is for those who know they can’t do it …

We have the grace now, the grace of the kingdom.  We have the glory later.  The kingdom as I see it is grace and glory.  Grace now, glory later.  What a tremendous thing.  Do you know what it is, people to possess the kingdom?  That’s what the word means, to possess.  You possess the kingdom.  It is yours.  The rule of Christ, the reign of Christ, you know what that means?  You’re his subject, he takes care of you

And by the way, you can’t do it by looking at yourself.  Also, you can’t do it by looking at other people.  Don’t try to find somebody else who will set the standard for you.  There’s only one place to look if you want to become poor in spirit, that’s to concentrate on God.  That’s the first thing.  Look at God.  Read his Word.  Face his person in its pages.  Look at Christ.  Look at Christ constantly.  As you gaze at Jesus Christ, you lose yourself.  You lose yourself. 

Secondly, not only look at God.  I’ll give you three little principles.  If you’re going to know what it is to be poor in spirit, look at God, not at you, not at anybody else.  Look at God.  Two, starve the flesh.  Starve the flesh.  You know, even the ministries, even the ministries of this generation feed on pride in so many cases.  We have to seek the things that strip the flesh naked … 

I’d say a third thing.  These are the things I see in my own life.  I’ve got to look at God all the time.  Secondly, I got to starve my flesh.  I don’t want to run to the thing that compliments.  But there’s a third thing and I think it’s simple.  Ask.  You want to be poor in spirit?  Ask.  There’s one thing about a beggar.  He’s always what?  Asking.  You ever notice that.  Always.  Ask.  “Lord,” said the sinner, “be merciful to me, a sinner.”  Jesus said, “That man went home justified.”  Happy is the beggar in his spirit.  He’s the one who possesses the kingdom.  Why did Jesus begin with this?  Because it’s the bottom line.

What does it mean?  It means to be spiritually bankrupt and know it.  What is the result?  You become a possessor of the kingdom here and now and forever.  How do you become poor in spirit?  Look at God.  Starve your flesh.  And ask, beg.  He doesn’t mind a bit

How do you know if you’re poor in spirit?  You’ll be weaned from yourself, lost in the wonder of Christ, and you’ll never complain about your situation because the deeper you get the sweeter the grace. 

Fourth.  You will see only the excellencies of others and only your own weakness.  You will see only the excellencies of others and only your own weakness.  Poor in spirit, the truly humble, is the only one who has to look up to everybody else. 

Fifth.  You will spend much time in prayer.  Why?  Because a beggar is always begging.  He knocks very often at heaven’s gate and he doesn’t let go until he’s blessed.  You want to know if you’re poor in spirit?  Are you weaned from yourself?  Are you lost in the wonder of Christ?  Are you never complaining no matter what the situation?  Do you see only the excellencies of others and only your own weakness?  Do you spend much time begging for grace? 

Six.  If you’re poor in spirit, you’ll take Christ on his terms, not yours.  You will take Christ on his terms, not yours.  The proud sinner will have Christ at his pleasure, Christ and his covetousness, Christ and his immorality.  The poor in spirit is so desperate he will give up anything just to get Christ, see.

Then Jesus said that blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (verse 4).

The interpretation which is often heard is that when we mourn the death of our loved ones or another type of loss, God will comfort us. That is true.

However, Jesus intended a spiritual mourning for the state of our souls.

MacArthur says that this has to do with repentance:

Listen, you can cry your eyes out about your problems and you can weep all you want about loneliness, and about discouragement, and about disappointment, and out of earnest love, and you can weep all you want about all those things, and you can cry your head off about your unfulfilled lusts, and when you’re said and done, every bit of that worldly sorrow will not bring you life.

There’s only one kind of sorrow that brings life, and that is godly sorrow, which leads you to – what? repentance.  Therefore, we conclude that it is sorrow over – what? – sin that is the issue That’s the issue.  It is godly sorrow, sorrow over sin.  The sorrow of the world is useless.  It works death where godly sorrow works repentance, which brings salvation, which brings comfort.  That’s the whole idea.  That’s the key.  Godly sorrow is linked to repentance, and repentance is linked to sin …

You’re not mourning here over circumstances, human circumstances.  Over sin is what you’re mourning about.  Remember verse three, where the beatitudes all began?  “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  What does it mean to be poor in spirit?  I told you.  It’s a sense of being spiritually bankrupt.  It is the thing that says “in my flesh there dwelleth – ” what? “ – no good thing.”  That’s what it is. 

And that’s the intellectual part, and verse 4 is the emotional part Because your mind is convinced that you are spiritually bankrupt, your emotion takes over and you mourn that bankruptcy Such are kingdom people.

David’s Psalm 51 is one of many illustrations of mourning the state of one’s soul:

In Psalm 51, reflecting on the same sin with Bathsheba he said, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness, according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity; cleanse me from my sin For I acknowledge my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.”  I can’t get it out of my vision.  I can’t get it out of my mind. 

Verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.  Renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.  Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”  Listen.  When he mourned his sin and he confessed his sin, he was cleaned out.  It was a whole different attitude. 

Verse 32 illustrates the comfort that God’s forgiveness of sin brings:

And you know what he said in Psalm 32 when he got it all out?  He said, “Blessed, happy.  Happy is the man who mourns, because happy is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.  Happy is the man unto whom the Lord does not impute iniquity.”  You know why mourners are happy?  Because mourners over sin who are the only ones who are – what? forgiven.  The rest of the world has to live with that guilt endlessly with no relief.

Beloved, let me say this.  The happiness doesn’t come in the mourning.  It comes in what God does in response to it.  You just try as a Christian to keep sin in your life and bottle it up and you just see how ruinous it becomes.  You confess it and see the freedom and the joy that comes in forgiveness …

Listen.  Nobody ever came into the kingdom of God who didn’t mourn over his own sinfulness.  And you can’t verify to me that you’re a true Christians or to anyone else unless throughout your life there is the same sense of grief over the sin in your own life.

Now I don’t mind being happy because I’m forgiven, but I can’t enjoy that happiness until I have dealt with sin.  A child of God is one constantly broken over sinfulness You know it’s hard for me to be happy much any more.  It really is.  I used to be a lot happier than I am now.  I know too much to be happy

MacArthur means this:

going back to Matthew chapter 5, the verb here is a present tense, penthountes, continuous action, “the ones who are continually mourning are the ones continually being comforted.”  Luther in his 95 Theses said that our entire life is a continuous act of repentance and contrition.  David cried it out, Psalm 38, “For my iniquities are gone over my head.  Like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.”  It was a way of life.  He just faced his sin as a reality all through his life.

You know something?  In all of the New Testament we find so much about Jesus, but one thing we never see Jesus do in the whole New Testament account is laugh He never laughed.  Oh, I don’t know if he did laugh or not, but it isn’t recorded.  Hard for me to imagine that he had much to laugh about.  He was hungry.  He was angry.  He was thirsty, but it never says he laughed, and that’s such a part of human emotion.  But it does say he wept.  He was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. 

I think we’ve left that.  We have been sucked into an entertainment, thrill seeking, pleasure mad, silly world of fools and jesters and comedians, some of them even trying to ply their trade in the church.  Do you know that it was man introduced the other night on Christian television program as the leading Christian comedian?  Who needs that?  That’s what it means.  You understand now don’t you what it means to mourn over your sin?

What’s the result of it?  Second question.  These will be shorter.  And I didn’t say all I wanted to say, either, about that.  You realize that you just get the tip of the iceberg week after week.  Living with that frustration is very difficult.  What is the result of mourning?  You say, “So what’s it going to get me?  I mourn around, mope around, sorry for my sin, what do I get?”  Comfort, comfort.  By the way, as I said before, mourners are not blessed because they mourn, mourners are blessed because they comfort.  You don’t mourn, you don’t get comforted.  You just try to hide your guilt and it eats away.  There’s no happiness in the sorrow of the world because it can’t be comforted.

And by the way, they use the emphatic pronoun autoi here, which means “blessed are they who continue to mourn for they alone shall be comforted.”  It is only the mourners who know the comfort of God.  It is only those who mourn for sin who know what it is to have their tears dried by the loving hand of Jesus Christ.  They shall be comforted, parakale from which we get paraclte, the one called alongside to help, the one that Jesus referred to, the comforter. 

By the way, the Bible tells us God is a comforter, Psalm 30:5, Psalm 50:15, Isaiah 55:6-7, Micah 7:18-20, and on and on and on talks about the comfort that God gives us.  He helps us, he succors us, he hears our cry, he meets our need, he’s always there beseeching, and admonishing, and consoling, and sympathizing, and encouraging, and strengthening, and forgiving, and restoring, and that adds up to comfort.

As our mourning rises to the throne of God, His unsurpassed and matchless comfort descends from Him by Christ to us.  “God is a God of all comfort,” the Bible says.  And did you know who the comforter was?  Jesus … said, “When I go away, I’ll send another – ” what? “ – comforter.”  …  God, the God of all comfort, Christ, the first Paraclete, called alongside to help, and the Holy Spirit followed up on the work God is a God of comfort.  Christ is a Christ of comfort.  The Holy Spirit is a Spirit of comfort.

Jesus said that blessed are the meek, because they will inherit the earth (verse 5).

Meekness is similar to yet different from humility.

MacArthur explains the progression, which related to the urge for political domination, something the Jews wanted over the Romans. Yet, Jesus addressed the spiritual side and proclaimed meekness, recognising God’s holiness and pursuing godliness:

Meek.  It’s different from broken in spirit.  Let me show you how.  The root word is the same idea – different word, same idea.  But let me show you.  In fact, some places in the Bible these two words could be used interchangeably, but there’s a beautiful distinction made here.  Now watch.  “Broken in spirit” centers on my sinfulness, okay?  Verse 3, “Broken in spirit” centers on my sinfulness.  “Meekness” centers on God’s holiness.  Two sides of the same thing.  Broken in spirit because I’m a sinner and meek because God is so holy by comparison.  Two sides of the same thing.

Look at it another way.  Broken in spirit is negative and it results in mourning.  Meekness is positive and it results in seeking righteousness.  See?  It’s just the other side of this thing.  That’s the beauty of the sequence.  There’s a progression here.  First of all, there is this brokenness, this tremendous sense of sinfulness and it’s negative and it results in mourning.  And then, all of a sudden, you begin to see the other side of itYou begin to see a holy God, and that’s meekness.  And then you begin to hunger after his holiness.  You see the sequence, the flow? 

“Happiness,” Jesus says, “Happiness, blessedness.  Oh, that’s for people like this, people who are – watch – realistic about their sin, who are repentant about their sin, who are responsive to God.”  And the unblessed and the unhappy and those shut out of the kingdom are the arrogant, self-sufficient, self-righteous, unrepentant, stiff-necked, proud people.  Man this was devastating.  Ooh. 

You see, the Zealots were saying, “We want a military Messiah.  We want a military kingdom.”  The Pharisees were saying, “We want a miraculous Messiah.  We want a miraculous kingdom.”  By the way, the Sadducees were saying, “We want a materialistic one.”  They were the materialists.  I suppose the Essenes were over in the corner saying, “We want a monastic one.”  But Jesus said, “I’ll give you a meek one.”  The kingdom is not going to be materialism.  It’s not going to be monasticism.  It’s not going to be militarism, and it’s not going to be just flashy miracles.  It’s going to be for the meek. 

And, you know, our world will still have trouble with that. Our world is, associates happiness and success with strength, and confidence, and self assurance, and survival of the fittest, and conquest, and power. That wasn’t Jesus’ way. His kingdom is for people who are meek.

MacArthur says that meekness also ran throughout the Old Testament and cites several passages.

He then gives us the biblical definition, which does not mean being a doormat, by the way. It means to be submissive towards God:

Look further.  “The meek” comes from a Greek word.  The root is praus.  And it means basically, here’s the root, “mild, gentle, and soft.”  Mild, gentle, and soft.  So the idea is a person who is gentle, mild, tenderhearted.  Somebody who’s patient.  Somebody who’s just submissive, and so forth.  Now that’s the root concept:  Mild, gentle, soft, patient, kind, quiet, willing, submissive … 

It is a byproduct of self emptying, of self humiliation. It is a brokenness before God.

Meekness also means exercising self-control over one’s own power:

When Jesus came into the city, you see, he didn’t come on a white charger conquering and to conquer. He came riding in on the colt, the foal of a jackass. I mean, that was really low-class transportation. He was meek. Further, let me say something to you about it. It is a gentleness, and a mildness, and a subdued character – watch this – it is not weakness. It is power under control. Get that definition

It’s Ephesians 4:26It’s okay to be angry, but don’t sin.  In other words, let it be a righteous anger, a controlled anger for God’s purposes.  Don’t be angry because you’ve been offended, be angry because God has, see?  It’s anger for the right reason at the right time

Meekness doesn’t mean impotence.  It is power under control.  And if you examine Proverbs 25:28 it says, “He that hath no rule over his spirit is like a city that is broken down and without walls.”  That’s power out of control.  You’ve got power, but there’s nothing to contain it, and it’s like a destroyed city.  On the other hand, Proverbs 16:32 says, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”  In other words, to rule the spirit is meekness.  To be out of control is the lack of meekness.  It is power under control … 

Power under control.  They trust in God.  They delight in him.  And God promises to give them the earth.  It isn’t cowardice.  It isn’t flabbiness.  It isn’t a wishy-washy lack of conviction.  It isn’t just human niceness.  Meekness says, “In myself, nothing is possible.  But in God, everything is possible.”  Meekness says, “For me, I offer no defense.  For God, I’ll give my life.  For God I’ll die.”  It’s not a passive acceptance of sin, but it’s an anger under control.  It’s holy indignation. 

Illustration. “For even hereunto were you called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that you should follow his steps.”  Now here’s real meekness.  He did no sin.  Neither was guile found in his mouth.  Now start right there.  He never did anything wrong.  So, whatever anybody accused him of was false accusation.  So whatever anybody punished him for was wrong.  Whenever they abused him, they were out of line.  Whenever they slandered him, they were wrong.  Whenever they mocked him, it was a lie, because he never did anything wrong.  He never sinned.  He never deceived.  He never did anything wrong. 

And even though he never deserved any criticism, when it came – in verse 23 – and when he was reviled, he didn’t revile again.  And when he suffered, he didn’t threaten.  He just committed Himself to him that judges righteously.

Stop right there.  That’s meekness.  Jesus never defended himself, never.  But when they desecrated his Father’s temple, he made a whip and started beating them, didn’t he?  Meekness says, “I’ll never defend myself, but I’ll die defending God.”  That’s meekness.  “I’ll never defend myself.  I’ll die defending God.” 

As for inheriting the earth, MacArthur says:

The people in the kingdom shall inherit the earth and the only ones who enter my kingdom are the meek, not the proud. The ones that are broken over their sin, not the ones who think they have no sin. The ones who are mourning over the fact that they’re lost, not the ones who are laughing about the fact that they’re supposedly all right.

Jesus said that blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteouness, for they will be filled (verse 6). This is another verse that is often misinterpreted in a socio-political context, yet it builds on the preceding Beatitudes and has spiritual, not temporal, significance.

MacArthur explains:

in your meekness before God, you realize that the only hope you have of ever knowing righteousness is to seek it at His hand, and so you come to the fourth Beatitude and you hunger and thirst after what you know is not yours on your own

So the progression is simple.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes:  “This Beatitude follows logically from the previous ones.  It is a statement to which all the others lead.  It is the logical conclusion to which they come.  It is something for which we should all be profoundly thankful and grateful to God.  I do not know of a better test that anyone can apply to himself or herself in this whole matter of the Christian profession than a verse like this.  If this verse is to you one of the most blessed statements of the whole of Scripture, you can be quite certain you’re a Christian.  If it is not, you had better examine your foundations again.” 

Because if you have been broken in your spirit and are overwhelmed with your sinfulness and you mourn over your sinfulness and then you look up to recognize the holiness of God, the response should be that you hunger and thirst for what He has that you need And if you do not hunger and thirst after righteousness, you are not a citizen of God’s kingdom.  Our society chases all the wrong things, you see.  They chase money, materialism, fame, popularity, pleasure, usually all because of greed, not need, but it’s all the wrong stuff.  And you know the sad part of it is, even though the United States grants us the pursuit of happiness, people don’t find it because they define happiness in a wrong way.  Happiness is money.  Happiness is pleasure.  Happiness is having material things.  Here it says happiness is brokenness, happiness is mourning, happiness is meekness, happiness is hungering and thirsting after righteousness. 

This is spiritual thirst, spiritual hunger, neither of which abates in the true believer:

The Greek verbs are just very powerful.  Peinntes means to be needy, to suffer hunger.  It has the idea of a deep hunger, not just superficiality.  The word dipsa, to suffer thirst Again, it carries the idea of a genuine thirst And here they are, the strongest impulses in the natural realm.  And by the way, they are in a continuous present participle The ones who are hungering.  The ones who are thirsting.  It is a continuous thing.  And so I say to you, beloved, this is not only the one – the condition of the one coming in, but this is the condition of the one in the kingdom. 

You know – I’ll put it this way:  When I came to Jesus Christ, I hungered and thirsted for His righteousness, and now that I know Him, I hunger and thirst for more of it, right?  That’s what He’s saying.  In fact, Lenski, the great commentator, says:  “This hunger and this thirst increases in the very act of being satisfied.”  Luke adds a note to this.  Luke has a parallel passage and he adds the word “now.”  “Blessed are they who are hungering now.”  It is a present, it is a continuous thing.  It is a moment-by-moment way of life.  When you become a Christian, you don’t stop

This is because sanctification is involved. Paul urged the Thessalonians, even in their abundant faith and love, to improve on that. It is part of the Christian journey:

Happiness is a byproduct.  Happy are those who hunger and thirst after what?  Righteousness.  You want to be happy, it comes as a byproduct of righteousness.  It’s not any holy high you get with some zap.  It’s not some experience you find.  That isn’t what it is.  Dikaiosun, righteousness, justification to be made right with God.  And what am I saying?  Listen, simple, the only real happiness in life is to be right with God That’s it.  The only real happiness in life is to be right with God.  And I believe this points to two things First of all, salvation and second of all, sanctification.  First of all, salvation and second, sanctification … 

Now let me say it in simplicity:  Happiness belongs to the holy That’s what he’s saying.  If you’re unhappy in your life, somewhere along the line, you’re unholy.  Jesus was talking to Jews who thought they were righteous.  To them holiness was a conformity to rules, it was an external thing.  But it wasn’t enough.  That’s why Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter the kingdom.”  Their righteousness doesn’t cut it.  The Beatitudes took the external, stripped it away and forced us to look at the inside.  And when you hunger and thirst for salvation, then you’ll be filled

But there’s a second element.  I think it also implies sanctification.  I don’t think once you get saved you stop hungering and thirsting, as I said.  Then you hunger and thirst for sanctification, for an increasing holiness.  Beloved, I don’t know how to express this as strongly as I feel it.  I hope in your life there is this hunger, hunger that never stops, the desires to be more and more like Christ.  This is a mark of a Christian.  You keep on hungering, you keep on thirsting to desire more virtue, a greater purity, more Christlikeness You never get to the place where you’ve arrived. 

Jesus said that blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (verse 7).

MacArthur says that the first four Beatitudes point to the inner life. The one about those who are merciful points towards outward actions:

These first four Beatitudes were entirely inner principles.  They dealt entirely with an inner attitude.  They dealt entirely with what you see of yourself before God.  But now, as He comes to the fifth Beatitude, this, while being also an inner attitude, begins to reach out and touch others.  There is a manifestation in this that is the fruit of the other four … 

So we’ve made a transition now.  Now we’re going to talk about the character that is manifest when that inward attitude is there in the first four Beatitudes.  When you have those first four, there are going to be four characteristics of your character that will be made manifest, and we’ll see them as we study these last four areas in this wonderful introduction. 

Now, you know, there are a lot of people who’ve tried to use this Beatitude in kind of a humanistic way

It isn’t simply the idea that if you’re merciful to everybody, then everybody’s going to be merciful to you.  That’s wishful thinking in a Roman society, and I’ll tell you something else:  It’s wishful thinking in our selfish, grasping, competitive society.  You know, in our society we could say, “You be merciful to somebody else and he’ll step on your neck.”  That doesn’t always work.  But the best illustration of the fact that it’s not just a human platitude is our Lord, Jesus Christ.  He proves once and for all that it isn’t a human platitude. 

MacArthur gives us examples of our Lord’s mercy:

Jesus Christ came into the world and was the most merciful human being that ever lived Jesus Christ came into the world and never did anything to harm anybody Never.  Jesus Christ came into the world, He reached out to the sick and He healed them And He reached out to the crippled and He gave them legs to walk.  And He reached to the eyes of the blind and they saw and to the ears of the deaf and they heard and to the mouths of the dumb and they spoke.  And He found the prostitutes and the tax collectors and those that were debauched and He drew them into the circle of His love and He redeemed them and He set them on their feet He picked up the sorrowing, He wept with them, and He took the lonely and He made them feel like they were loved.  And He took little children and He gathered them into His arms and He loved them Never was there a human being who ever lived in the face of the earth with the mercy of this one. 

Once He was going along the streets and a funeral procession came by, and He saw a mother weeping because her son was dead and who would care?  No son, no husband.  And Jesus reached out in the midst of the funeral procession, stopped the casket, put His hand on it, and raised the child from the dead and gave him back to his mother.  In John chapter 8, some men had caught a woman in adultery and they dragged that woman into the presence of Jesus, and He looked at that woman after He had talked with her and after He’d confronted her accusers and He forgave her and He said, “Neither do I condemn thee.  Go and sin no more.”  What mercy. 

He ate with tax collectors, He ate with sinners, and when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eat with the tax collectors and the sinners in Mark chapter 2, verse 16, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with publicans and sinners?  He runs around with the riffraff.”  From start to finish, the life of the blessed Lord Jesus was one of constant mercy.  He was merciful to everyone.  Listen, I’m telling you something, people:  Mercy given doesn’t mean mercy returned.  You can’t work that human platitude in Jesus’ case.  You know what?  He was the most merciful human being that ever lived and they screamed for His blood and they slammed Him to a cross and they nailed Him there.  That’s not a human platitude.  Doesn’t make it.  That’s not what it’s talking about.  If mercy carried its own reward, they wouldn’t have nailed the most merciful being that ever lived to a cross and spit in His face and cursed Him.  The most merciful one who ever lived received from the people to whom He gave mercy no mercy at all

MacArthur explores the Greek and the Hebrew words for mercy:

Let’s look at the word “merciful.”  Elemnes.  The word is only used twice in the entire New Testament Once it is used here and once it is used in Hebrews chapter 2 and verse 17, and there it says, “Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like his brother and that he might be a merciful and faithful” – what? – “high priest.”  Christ is the great illustration of mercy.  He is our high priest who intercedes for us, and it is from Him that mercy comes.  The verb form, however, is used many, many times in the Bible.  It is very, very common.  It is common in the Old Testament, Septuagint, the Greek edition.  The Hebrew synonym would be chesed and it is also very common.  The word simply means to have mercy on – now listen – to succor the afflicted, to give help to the wretched, and to rescue the miserable.  It’s a very broad idea. 

Anything you do that is of benefit to someone in need, that’s mercy.  Very broad idea, we think of mercy so much in terms of its aspect of forgiveness in salvation, but it’s a very broad term.  It means compassion in action.  It goes beyond compassion.  It goes beyond sympathy.  It means compassion in action, sympathy in action toward anyone who has any need.  And when our Lord talks about it here, the real elemnes, the real stuff, is not a weak sympathy which carnal selfishness feels but never does anything to help.  It is not that false mercy which really indulges its own flesh in salving of conscience by giving tokenism.  It is not the silent, passive pity which could be genuine but never seems to be able to help in a tangible way.  It’s not any of those superficial things.  It is genuine compassion with a pure, unselfish motive that reaches out to help somebody in need.  That’s what it is. 

In other words, Jesus was saying to them, “The people in my kingdom aren’t takers, they’re givers.  The people in my kingdom aren’t condemners, they’re mercy givers.  The people in my kingdom aren’t the ones who set themselves above everybody, they’re the people who stoop to help everybody.”

Forgiveness and love are also connected to mercy:

We cannot think of mercy without its expression in forgiveness.  We cannot think of forgiveness without its source: mercy.  But listen, people, forgiveness is not the only expression of mercy … 

Forgiveness flows out of mercy, mercy flows out of what?  Love.  Why has God been merciful?  It is based on love.  But God, who is rich in mercy – why?  For His great love wherewith He loved us.  You see the sequence?  God loves and love is merciful and mercy is forgiving, among many other things.  And so love is behind mercy, but love is bigger than mercy, if you can imagine this. 

You say, “Now wait a minute.  You said mercy was bigger than forgiveness.”  That’s right.  Mercy is bigger than forgiveness and love is bigger than mercy.  Because love can do a lot of things, a lot more than just show mercy.  Because mercy presupposes a problem and love can act when there isn’t a problem, right?  The Father loves the Son, the Son doesn’t need mercy.  The Son loves the Father and the Father doesn’t need mercy.  The Father loves the angels and the angels love the Father and neither one of them need mercy.  Love is bigger than mercy.  Mercy is the physician.  Love is the friend.  Love acts out of affection, mercy acts out of need.  Love is constant, mercy is reserved for times of trouble.  But there’s no mercy without love.  But love is bigger than mercy. 

Then there is grace:

What about mercy and grace?  People say, “Well, is mercy like grace?” and “Is grace like mercy?”  Well, yes and no.  Now listen, you’re going to really get a theological exercise, so hang on.  The term “mercy” and all of its derivatives – listen – always deal with elements of pain and misery and distress Always the result of sin, whether it’s individual sin or just the sin of the world, just the problem of being in a sinful world You see, mercy always presupposes problems.  It deals with the pain and the misery and the distress.  But grace deals with the sin itself.  Mercy deals with the symptoms, grace deals with the problem. 

You see, mercy offers relief from punishment Grace offers pardon for the crime.  You understand?  First comes grace and grace removes the sin and then mercy eliminates the punishment They’re different.  You know, in three of his letters – and he never does it in a letter to a church, he only does it in letters to individuals, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus, Paul says “mercy and grace and peace.”  Mercy and grace are different.  Mercy eliminates the pain and grace grants a better condition.  Let me give you an illustration.  The Good Samaritan, right?  He’s lying – the man’s lying on the side of the road, he’s been beaten to the point of dying, he’s been robbed, and the priest goes by and walks along and doesn’t want to get involved.  And the Levite goes by, doesn’t want to get involved.  All the sudden, a half-breed Samaritan comes by and he sees this poor Jew all beaten and maimed and so forth, and he goes over and he cares for him You know what mercy does?  Mercy relieves his pain.  Mercy pours oil in his wombs and mercy binds up his wounds.  And mercy relieves the suffering.  And you know what grace does?  Grace goes over and rents him a room so he can live in an inn. 

You see, mercy deals with the negative and grace puts it in the positive.  Mercy takes away the pain and grace gives a better condition.  Mercy says no hell, grace says heaven.  Mercy says I pity you, grace says I pardon you.  So mercy and grace are two sides of the same marvelous thing And God offers mercy and grace. 

However, we cannot forget justice:

People say, “Well, if God is a God of justice, how can He be merciful?”  If you look at it that way, if God’s a just, holy, righteous God, can He just negate justice?  Can He say, “Well, I know you’re a sinner and I know you’ve done awful things, but oh, I love you so much and I have so much mercy, I’m just going to forgive you”?  Can He do that?  Yeah, He can.  You know why?  Because He came into the world in human form and died upon a cross, and at the cross when Jesus died – don’t ever forget it – justice was satisfied. 

Did you get that?  God said there would be no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood and God said there had to be a perfect sacrifice to bear the sins of the world, and Jesus was that and justice was satisfied.  And now mercy does no violation to justice.  I’m not – when I talk about the mercy of God, it’s not some foolish sentimentality that excuses sin.  Listen, we got too much of that going on, even in the church.  The only time God ever extended mercy to anybody was when somebody paid the price for the sin involved.

And God will never violate the truth of His justice and His holiness to be merciful He will be merciful, but only when truth has been dealt with

We’re not talking about sentimentality.  I’m not telling you that if you sin your life away and never acknowledge Jesus Christ, God’s going to be merciful and accept you.  That’s not true.  You will have judgment without mercy.  And I believe that the only time God can really give mercy is when the truth has been accepted Only when we accept the sacrifice of Christ or as Christians who’ve done that, if God is to be merciful to us, then we must confess sin as sin and repent and turn from it, and then we’ll know His mercy. 

So, mercy is special It is more than forgiveness.  It is less than love.  It is different than grace.  And it is one with justice.  It is more than forgiveness, less than love, different than grace, and one with justice.  To sum up the significance of being a merciful person, listen to this:  The merciful not only hears the insults of evil men, but his heart reaches out to the very same evil men in compassion.  The merciful one is sympathetic.  He is forgiving.  He is gracious.  He is loving.  He’s not so sentimental that He will excuse evil.  He’s not so sentimental that He will allow for sin to go unpunished or unconfronted just because somebody is kind of sad or tragic.  No, mercy means you reach out in sympathy and total forgiveness and love and grace when truth is accepted Psalm 37:21 says this:  “The wicked borrows and pays not back, but the righteous shows mercy.”  We’re going to be merciful to those who accept the truth. 

Jesus said that blessed are the pure in heart — the holy — for they will see God (verse 8).

Matthew Henry tells us:

This is the most comprehensive of all the beatitudes; here holiness and happiness are fully described and put together.

1. Here is the most comprehensive character of the blessed: they are pure in heart. Note, True religion consists in heart-purity. Those who are inwardly pure, show themselves to be under the power of pure and undefiled religion. True Christianity lies in the heart, in the purity of heart; the washing of that from wickedness, Jer 4 14. We must lift up to God, not only clean hands, but a pure heart, Ps 24 4, 5; 1 Tim 1 5. The heart must be pure, in opposition to mixturean honest heart that aims well; and pure, in opposition to pollution and defilement; as wine unmixed, as water unmuddied. The heart must be kept pure from fleshly lusts, all unchaste thoughts and desires; and from worldly lusts; covetousness is called filthy lucre; from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, all that which come out of the heart, and defiles the man. The heart must be purified by faith, and entire for God; must be presented and preserved a chaste virgin to Christ. Create in me such a clean heart, O God!

2. Here is the most comprehensive comfort of the blessed; They shall see God. Note, (1.) It is the perfection of the soul’s happiness to see God; seeing him, as we may by faith in our present state, is a heaven upon earth; and seeing him as we shall in the future state, in the heaven of heaven. To see him as he is, face to face, and no longer through a glass darkly; to see him as ours, and to see him and enjoy him; to see him and be like him, and be satisfied with that likeness (Ps 17 15); and to see him for ever, and never lose the sight of him; this is heaven’s happiness. (2.) The happiness of seeing God is promised to those, and those only, who are pure in heart. None but the pure are capable of seeing God, nor would it be a felicity to the impure. What pleasure could an unsanctified soul take in the vision of a holy God? As he cannot endure to look upon their iniquity, so they cannot endure to look upon his purity; nor shall any unclean thing enter into the new Jerusalem; but all that are pure in heart, all that are truly sanctified, have desires wrought in them, which nothing but the sight of God will sanctify; and divine grace will not leave those desires unsatisfied.

MacArthur lays out the progression of the Beatitudes thus far and prepares us for the next, that of the peacemakers:

… you begin with the reality of being poor in spirit.  And when you see yourself as a cowering beggar in a corner, reaching out a hand that can only be given a gift, you have no power to earn anything.  And as a cowering beggar, ashamed to show your face, you reach out in tremendous sense of inadequacy.  You reach out to God.  That’s where it begins, and then in your reaching out as a beggar, your next response is to mourn over the sin that has put you in that position.  And out of your total sense of sinfulness, you fall meek before an absolutely holy God You couldn’t be anything else but humble.  And in your humility, all you can do is cry out and hunger and thirst for a righteousness which you can’t attain and yet you’ve got to have.  And you cry that God would give it.  And then what happens?  He gives you mercy and that’s the next Beatitude and you become one of those who are merciful.  And once you have been granted mercy and once God by His mercy has cleansed your heart because you hungered for His righteousness, then and then alone do you become pure in heart, and only when you are pure in heart could you ever be a peacemaker. 

Jesus said that the peacemakers are blessed, for they will be called children of God (verse 9).

MacArthur says that the peacemakers are not politicians, statesmen or diplomats:

God’s peacemakers are vastly different, which is good because the world’s peacemakers have a terrible failure record … 

I’ll never forget reading a statistic.  The question was:  How many peace treaties have been broken?  The answer:  All of them.  You see, peace is that glorious brief moment in history when everybody stops to reload.  The United Nations was concerned in the aftermath of World War II with developing an agency for world peace, and so in 1945, the United Nations brought itself into existence, and since that time there has not been one single day of peace on the earth — not one.  The world is filled with never-ending upheavals.  The motto of the United Nations was set in 1945:  “To have succeeding generations free from the scourge of war.”  So far they haven’t done it for one day.  It’s a pipe dream.

He defines peace through the Jewish greeting, ‘Shalom’:

Peace is not just stopping the war; peace is creating the righteousness that brings the two parties together in love.  When a Jew says to another Jew, “Shalom,” which is the word for peace, he doesn’t mean “May you have no wars, may you have no conflict,” he means “I desire for you all the righteousness that God can give, all the goodness that God can give.”  Shalom means “God’s highest good for you.”  It’s a creative force for goodness.  So if we are to be peacemakers, we do not only stop the war, we replace it with the righteousness of God We replace it with all the goodness of God.  Peacemakers are those who not only call a truce but a real peace where all is forgotten, and they embrace one another.  It is an aggressive good.  What I’m trying to say is that peace is not creating a vacuum.  Peace is not creating the absence of something, but the presence of something

The peace of the Bible does not evade issues.  It never evades issues.  The peace of the Bible is not peace at any price.  It isn’t a gloss.  The peace of the Bible conquers the problem.  You see the difference?  It conquers that problem in the middle ground so that the two can come together.  It builds a bridge to two sides.  Sometimes it means struggle.  Sometimes it means pain.  Sometimes it means anguish.  Sometimes it means a little more strife but in the end, real peace can come. 

Peace is linked to holiness — purity of heart:

The wisdom that is from God finds its way to peace through what?  Purity.  First pure, then peaceable.  Peace is never sought at the expense of righteousness.  You have not made peace between two people unless they have seen the sin and the error and the wrongness of the bitterness and the hatred and they have resolved to bring it before God and make it right, then through purity comes peace Peace that ignores purity is not the peace that God talks about.  In Hebrews 12:14, it says this, and another word that you must remember:  “Follow peace with all men and holiness.”  In other words, you cannot divorce peace from holiness.  You cannot divorce peace from purity.  You cannot divorce peace from righteousness.  Psalm 85:10 says, “Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”  Where there is real peace, there is righteousness.  Where there is real peace, there is holiness.  Where there is real peace, there is purity, because that resolves the issue. 

Paradoxically, biblical peace is not without conflict:

When Jesus says, “Be a peacemaker in the world,” that doesn’t mean you don’t ever bring up anything that is true if it offends somebody.  On the contrary, you better bring it up if it’s true and it better offend them so they can get past that to the real peace.  Biblical peace is real peace.  We are not peacemakers in the world in the sense that we never make strife.  We make strife all the time.  But we are peacemakers in the world in this sense, that when the strife is over the real peace is there.  Biblical peace is that kind of peace.  Now, we are not agreeing to just settle things without dealing with truth.  We will deal with truth.  And if you’re going to deal with truth, beloved, you’re going to be a divider You’re going to be a disturber, you’re going to be a disrupter.  There’s no way to get around it. 

And you know, you see that, don’t you?  You go to work and you start to live for Christ and you start to give your testimony and all of a sudden, here you are trying to be a peacemaker and help people to make peace with God and help them make peace with each other and help them make peace in their own hearts, but you’re doing your best to get them to make peace and all they can do is get mad at you Because the whole premise of your message is that they have to deal with sin, and people don’t like to hear that so they get very upset.  Our Lord said in Luke 12:51, “Do you suppose that I am come to give peace on earth?  I tell you nay, but rather division.  From henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two and two against three.  The father shall be divided against the son, the son against the father, the mother against the daughter, the daughter against the mother, the mother-in-law against the daughter-in-law, and the daughter-in-law against the mother-in-law.”  In other words, Jesus said it’s very obvious at the beginning that when people come to Jesus Christ there will be conflict And He knows that true peace can only come when truth reigns and it’s more than a truce It’s a real peace. 

MacArthur gives us a practical application for us to discern if we are peacemakers. This follows on from the previous Beatitudes:

You have righteousness in your life, you have purity in your life, you have holiness in your life and you’ll have peace in your life.  And if you’ve got problems in your marriage and there’s conflict in your marriage and conflict in your family or in your home, I’ll tell you one thing: You have righteousness, holiness, and purity in your marriage and your home and you’ll have peace in your home.  Because that’s always the way.  Once you have righteousness, you’re at peace with God, peace with man, peace with self. 

And so to be a peacemaker, you’ve got to go through all the Beatitudes.  You’ve got to come to the place where you see your own sinfulness, you see yourself as a wretched soul, miserable, deserving nothing with no rights or privileges, hating your natural self, crying out to a holy God to give you a righteousness you could never get but must have.  And God, in His great, great love, gives you mercy, purifies your heart, and then and only then will you ever be a peacemaker

Peace belongs to God.  It doesn’t belong to man at all.  In fact, you want to hear something?  Since the fall of man, in Genesis 3, man has never known peace unless he took it as a gift from God, because man doesn’t have it.  God is perfect peace.  In fact, God is at perfect peace with Himself.  God is characterized by perfect oneness.  The Trinity has perfect oneness.  It is absolutely tranquil.  It is in absolute harmony.  It is perfectly united.  In the Trinity, there is no conflict.  There is only peace and that radiates from God.  The only way we’ll ever know peace is if God comes to us.  And I love the statement of Ephesians 2:14 that tells us that’s exactly what He did.  It says, “For He” – that is Christ – “is our peace.”  When Christ came into the world, He was the peace of God coming to take the hand of God and the hand of man and by His own sacrifice make man righteous and join his hand to God. 

MacArthur says that true peacemakers help people make peace with God:

There’s a second thing:  A peacemaker is one who has peace himself with God and, secondly, one who helps others make peace with God.  One who helps others make peace with God.  I think Jesus had in mind here evangelism I think that’s the greatest thing about peacemaking.  You can go to somebody who’s at war with God and make peace between that person and God, right?  And I’ll tell you something else.  Anybody who is unsaved is at odds with you, too, because they’re out of the family.  They’re cursed by God.  They’re set apart from the kingdom.  And the minute they come to Jesus Christ, they make peace with God and peace with you, they become God’s child and your brother, right?  Evangelism is peacemaking.  What a fabulous thought.  The best way to be a peacemaker is to preach the gospel of peace.  To impart to men the gospel so that their alienation from God can be ended.  So that their alienation from the church, the body of Christ, from your fellowship, can be ended.  And they can be at peace.  No wonder it says in Romans 10:15, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of” – what? – “peace.” 

You see, it’s a beautiful thing to bring people to a peaceful relationship with God.  You want to really be a peacemaker?  Just tell somebody about Jesus Christ.  That’s infinitely beyond what any mortal politician or statesman has ever accomplished in a political sense.  That’s ultimate, eternal, real peace. 

Jesus discusses the final beatitude — the blessed state of those who are persecuted for righeteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven — in verses 10 and 11.

MacArthur explains why:

Now, I really believe that this is one Beatitude The reason I believe it’s the same one is because the term “persecute” is used in verse 10, and the term “persecute” is used again in verse 11 It’s really the same thing, it’s just expanded in verse 11.  Another reason I believe it’s really only one Beatitude is that there’s only one result given.  You take verse 10 and 11, and the only result is at the end of verse 10:  “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Now, all of the Beatitudes have a promise with the character, and there’s only one promise in verses 10 and 11, and that’s at the end of verse 10.  You say, “Well, if it’s only one promise, then why does it have two ‘blesseds’?”  I believe that God double-blesses those who suffer.  I believe God double-blesses those who are persecuted.  It’s almost as if we need it in this particular case.  Double-blessed are those who are persecuted

This beatitude carries on nicely from being a peacemaker:

There was never anyone more loving than Jesus Christ.  There was never a greater peacemaker than Jesus Christ.  And for some people, they responded to that love, and for some people, they entered into that peace But even though Jesus was the most loving, magnanimous, gracious, kind, peaceful person who ever lived, everywhere He went, He created antagonism.  Why?  Because He was confrontive about the issues.  And it is so with all the righteous.  You chart the course of the righteous throughout history, and they have always suffered for their godliness Always.  It began in the very beginning, in the book of Genesis, when a godly, righteous man named Abel was murdered by an ungodly, unrighteous brother who simply could not tolerate his righteousness, and it’s been so ever since.  Moses had to choose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than compromise himself in the pleasures of Egyptian society, Hebrews 11 tells us.  There was always a price to pay. 

MacArthur says that not all of us will be persecuted. Nonetheless, we need to be prepared for that possibility:

It doesn’t mean that every single one of us is going to know constant persecution all our lives to an intense degree, he is simply saying the world will pick some of us out And I believe anyway that all of us who live righteously in the world, at some time or another, are going to know the rebuke of the cross

Maybe it’s going to affect how they get their living.  Maybe they’re going to have to believe God to supply the thing that they don’t know the source for if they turn their back on what they’ve known in the past.  And so it could affect their secular job and it still can today

We return to an internal Beatitude here:

This is an attitude.  It is an attitude of a willingness to be persecuted.  That’s what He’s saying.  It is that lack of fear, that lack of shame, that presence of boldness that says, “I will be in this world what Christ would have me be.  I will say in this world what Christ will have me say.  And if persecution results, let it be.”  It’s that attitude.  It is a passive participle in the Greek and it indicates a permissiveness.  Those who allow themselves to be persecuted.  Blessed are they who allow themselves to be persecuted. 

There is the matter of being reviled as well as being slandered or libelled (verse 11):

There’s a second element.  He says in verse 11 they’ll revile you.  Oneidiz.  It literally means to cast in one’s teeth.  To cast in one’s teeth.  It’s used in the crucifixion of Christ in Matthew 27:44.  They cast in His teeth.  They mocked Him.  They made fun of Him.  They reviled Him.  They scorned Him.  It’s to throw something in your face, is what it is.  It’s to abuse somebody with vile, vicious, mocking words.  That’s essentially what it means.  So we not only are going to be chased out of the groups we used to be in, we’ll be ostracized from the activities that we used to be a part of.  Not only that, there are going to be people who are going to speak evil of us, they’re going to say things about us, they’re going to use unkind words when our name comes up.  They did it with Jesus.  They said, “Ah, he hangs around with prostitutes and winebibbers,” and so forth.  So if you’re going to live the Beatitude life, you’ve got to be willing to be persecuted and reviled, and there are going to be some people who are going to say unkind things about you.  Some people maybe you may care about, too

There’s a third thing, and this is really a hard one to take.  You know, I’ve always found that I could take the chasing me away.  Nobody wants me around much after they find I’m a minister.  It’s amazing how fast people want to get out of my presence.  After they find out I’m not like a minister like other ministers they’ve known, that I’m a little more confrontive.  And so they’ll find that out as I begin to maybe confront them a little with the things of Christ, and then they’re really itchy to get out of there.  I’m rarely invited to the activities that they engage in.  I can handle that and I can even handle people saying unkind and vile and vicious things about me and I get some of that

And I know what it is to be arrested from preaching.  I preached a sermon in a certain place in the South and I didn’t go very far from there until a police car caught up with me and arrested me and threw me in jail and threatened to strip my clothes off and beat me with a whip and so forth and so on if I continued to do what I was doing.  That’s in the United States of America.  I guess those things, can tolerate, but then there’s that third thing where he says here that they’ll “say all manner of evil against you falsely.”  And you know, sometimes that’s so hard to take.  I don’t mind if they don’t like what I do say, but when they make me say things that I don’t say, that’s hard to take.  And then you got to try to defend yourself for something you never even said. 

“They say slanderous and evil things against you.”  They tried to say about Jesus that he was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier.  That wasn’t true.  They’ve tried to say things about God’s people throughout all of history.  Arthur Pink well says that “it is a strong proof of human depravity that men’s curses and Christ’s blessings should meet on the same person.”  Isn’t that interesting?  What a picture of depravity.  Christ’s blessings and men’s curses meet on the same person. It’s the people He blesses that the world curses.  That shows you how far they are from God.  Such a life provokes the ungodliness of men to be resentful.  It is the enmity of the serpent against the holy seed. 

MacArthur discusses the Greek word for ‘persecution’:

“Persecution” is from a Greek word that means “to harass, to treat evilly.”  Literally, in its root, it means “to pursue.”  You’re going to come after us.

Even in 1979, he could feel the winds of change. And lo, it has come to pass:

I really feel in America, we’re on the threshold of some days that are going to be real different than what we’ve known in the past.  I think that we’ve been sort of lollygagging around in the post-American Awakening era.  You know, we’ve been living off the revivalists of the past and the benefits that America had from its heritage of those days.  That is fast coming to an end.  Not only is government acting against religion, and religion is acting against itself by proliferating all of the cults and -isms and schisms and spasms and everything else.

And we’re seeing the government crack down on religious groups.  We’re seeing changes in attitudes.  We’re seeing the IRS and other agencies begin to make laws that are going to directly impact those of us who are in the church of Jesus Christ.  We’re seeing reactions to things that once were held to be sacred, the whole idea of church and all of those kinds of things, you know, it’s all gone with mom and apple pie.  That’s gone too, and so, “They’re going to come after us,” He says.

How?  Verse 11.  Remember what we told you?  “Revile.”  That’s abuse to the face.  “…say all manner of evil against you falsely…,” that’s slander behind the back.  They’re going to come at those who are God’s people right on the nose and around the back.  They’re going to talk about us when we’re gone, and they’re going to react to us when we’re there.  There will be open confrontations, and there will be that private slander.

This is why:

It isn’t you.  It’s that they don’t know God And because they don’t know God, they don’t know Christ And because they don’t know Christ, they don’t understand righteousness And because they aren’t willing to accept righteousness, they want their sin and will not tolerate a confrontation at that point.

Jesus ends the Beatitude section by saying that the persecuted and reviled should be glad, for their reward will be great in heaven, because, in the same way, were the prophets who went before were subject to the same treatment (verse 12).

MacArthur says persecution probably won’t be a constant event, but God will watch over us:

It is not the idea that we are going to be incessantly, unmitigatedly persecuted, an unceasing stream of persecution.  That wasn’t true in Paul’s time.  That wasn’t true in Christ’s time.  There were times when Christ enjoyed the respite of a family time with Mary and Martha and Lazarus.  There were times when Jesus retreated to the Mount of Olives.  There were wonderful times with the Twelve in Galilee.

No, it isn’t going to be incessant, unending, unceasing.  But whenever – hotan – whenever it happens, then God will be there to bring His blessedness to bear upon that willing soul.  He always makes it bearable, doesn’t He?  “There’s no trial taken you but such as is common to man, but God is faithful who will never allow you to be tried above that you are able, but will, in that trial, make a way of – “ what? “ – escape…”  …

Whatever loss here could never be compared with what gain in God’s Kingdom.  “Blessed,” he says.  Twice he says it, emphatically repeating, “Blessed.  Blessed again,” because those who would willingly stand up for Jesus Christ will know the bliss of obedience and the blessedness of being a part of God’s eternal kingdom

MacArthur points out the circularity of the first and the eighth Beatitude:

Listen.  The kingdom is the gift of the Beatitudes.  Did you note the first Beatitude began with the promise, “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and the last Beatitude ends with the promise, “Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”?  And what it’s really saying to us is that the major promise of the Beatitudes is you become a kingdom citizen now and forever, and the ones in between are just elements of kingdom life.

What we can conclude is that, if we want to be a part of God’s eternal kingdom, we would do well to heed the Beatitudes, live by them, pray that we can further fulfil them by studying the Word of God regularly. The more we read of the Bible, the better we understand God’s purpose for us.

May all reading this enjoy a blessed Sunday.

 

 

John F MacArthurThis year’s Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Epiphany — January 22, 2023 — was Matthew 4:12-23.

It was about the beginning of our Lord’s ministry in Galilee and His calling of two sets of brothers to be among His Apostles, to be fishers of men: Andrew and Simon Peter as well as John and James.

Verse 23 says:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Jesus, as did the Apostles after the first Pentecost, particularly Paul, taught in the synagogues regularly.

John MacArthur describes these houses of worship and their additional functions in ‘The Healing Work of Jesus’ which he preached in 1978.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

MacArthur begins by commenting on the verse itself and how it fits in with Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, with its theme of Jesus as the Messiah, the King of Kings:

Let’s look at verse 23: Jesus began on the right plan “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.”  Now here we come right to those two dimensions of messianic credentials: His words and His works Let’s look at some specifics here.  “And Jesus went about,” that’s an interesting verb.  I want to stop for a minute; it’s an imperfect tense verb, and when you have the imperfect it doesn’t mean it’s less than perfect. It’s just a term used for something that’s continuous action in the past tense It means that He was constantly going about, the idea of a constant endeavor.  You might even translate it, “He was continually going around” – incessant effort is the idea And really what you have in verse 23 – hang on to this thought – is a one-verse summary of the whole Galilean ministry.

Now notice, Matthew will take this one-verse summary and expand it in chapter 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9, so that those chapters to come – 5 through 9 – are an expansion of verse 23.  In fact, His words are the subject of chapter 5, 6, and 7.  His works are the subject of chapter 8 and 9.  So Matthew simply introduces those two elements here and then he begins to expand them in the next section, verses 5:1 through 9:38.  First, 5, 6, and 7 – His words – the great truth of the Sermon on the Mount that was absolutely shocking, devastating, and divine. And then His mighty works and miracles, chapters 8 and 9.

So He went all over the place incessantly and constantly, and you’ll notice it says, He “went about all Galilee.”  He was moving all the time.  Now “all Galilee” is a strong expression.  The term “all” is a very strong term, and when it says “all” in this sense it really does mean in a comprehensive sense

The point is this: that to cover 204 villages and to move around through all of that mass of humanity required much time and constant travel and Jesus was busy.  Somebody figured out just to touch every town, moving at a rate of one town a day, is gonna take a half a year, and that would be only if you stayed one day in each place

And so Jesus moved about.  He was going to touch as many as He could.  It was important that the whole of all those people – and remember they were Jew and Gentile mixed, and even the Jewish ones had been exposed to Gentile culture.

That is because Galilee was along the trade route to and from Africa.

The local synagogue was the heart of the community:

First of all it says, in verse 23, “Teaching in their synagogues.”  Within Galilee Jesus chose to kind of center His ministry in the synagogues.  Now the synagogue was the most important institution in the life of any Jew.  Keep that in mind.  It was the most important institution.  It is very like the church is to you, you that are Christians. You love the Lord Jesus Christ, you’re active at Grace Community Church, you’re involved here – this is the most important institution in your life.  Your family is here, your kids are here, your friendships are here, this is your life.  No different in those days.  The whole of Jewish life centered around the synagogue.  In fact, in some cases it would be even more intense because even the politics of life and the economics of life – you traded there, you learned to sort of match up your businesses with people of like trade because they sat according to trade It was everything to the Jewish people.  In fact, the worst thing that could ever happen to a Jew was to be unsynagogued Aposunaggos, “to be unsynagogued” was it.  And you see, that’s exactly what happened when a Jew became a Christian He was dis-fellowshiped from the synagogue.  It was vital.  That’s why the whole book of Hebrews is written.  It was written to Christians, but also there are warnings throughout that book to certain Jewish people who were so afraid of being unsynagogued that even though they believed the gospel, they wouldn’t receive Christ.  This synagogue was the key to their life.

He describes the physical location of the synagogue:

In most cases, the synagogue was built on a hill, using the most prominent hump in the city of the little town, and every town had one.  And there would be the synagogue, and it would be the highest place in the city and usually would be distinguished by a tall pole shooting up in the sky so that everybody could focus on that It was as familiar a sight to go into a Jewish town and see a synagogue spire as it is to go in the middle of New England and see a little church spire in the little villages.  It’s common.

Sometimes, if there weren’t any hills, they would build along the river and the bank of the river, and very often they built synagogues without a roof They just let their worship go up to God … the synagogue they’ve uncovered in Capernaum and have reconstructed really doesn’t have any roof We don’t know if it did or didn’t have one or what kind of one it had, but it was where they gathered.

This was the pattern of worship:

Divine worship was held in the synagogue every Sabbath, every Saturday.  Sabbath ran from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown, and on the second and fifth day of every week they had special services, every Sabbath they had special services Of course, they had special services every festival day, all the feast days and all the special days.  Now basically when they came together on the Sabbath, if it wasn’t a special day, this is how the format went: first there was the reading of the Law and the reading of the Prophets by certain people who were called upon, and then there were prayers offered by the leader, and then there were responses by the people They would respond with amens and various praises to God.

Following that there would be an exposition of some text of the Scripture, and that went all the way back to the return under Ezra and Nehemiah.  When they read the Scripture – You remember in Nehemiah? – “and then Ezra the scribe stood up and gave the sense of it” expository preaching is not something new in this generation It is the kind of preaching in the restoration under Ezra and Nehemiah, and it is historically what the Jews have done in their synagogue, first the reading, then the prayer, and then the exposition And it was interesting, if there was a visiting dignitary or a visiting rabbi, he would be given the right to speak the exposition very often. And that’s where, of course, Paul moved right into the synagogue and used some Old Testament text and took off That was very common.

This is how the synagogue was organised and how it ruled over the community:

The affairs of the synagogue were administered by ten men; basically, ten elders of whom three were called the rulers of the synagogue.  They acted as judges.  They would admit proselytes or not admit them.  They settled issues.  There was a fourth ruler called the angel of the church who was sort of the chairman of the board.  There were others who were called servers who carried out the direction of the three and the one There was an eighth one, according to Jewish tradition, that was the Hebrew interpreter who took the ancient Hebrew and translated it into the vernacular.  There was a ninth one who headed up the theological school.  And by the way, every synagogue had a theological school in it And there was a tenth one who interpreted the theological school instructor stuff because it was usually over the heads of the people So they had this whole organization, this incredible structure.

Listen, the synagogue became the court of law, and any disputes or court problems or civil things, they came there; their judgment was made and execution was even pronounced Listen, you know the Roman government only took away from the Jews the right of execution at the time of Jesus They could do everything else.  They could run their own affairs.  The only thing they couldn’t do was take somebody’s life.  That’s why they had to take Jesus to the Romans to have Him crucified.

They ruled their own affairs.  And as we see, the small villages and towns in the time of Jesus, they would have their own court of law.  Also the synagogue was a public school for boys, and the little boys would go there, in their childhood, and learn the Talmud.  And further, the synagogue was a theological school for the men.  So this was the center of the whole concentration of Jewish life.  And when Jesus went there to that place, He would be stepping right into the midst of Israel.

The temple in Jerusalem differed from the synagogue, as it was only there where sacrifices and monetary offerings could be made:

Now there’s a vast difference, remember, between the synagogue and the temple There’s only one temple, and that is at Jerusalem.  That’s the only temple.  There isn’t one there now, as you know, not since 70 A.D. when Titus came in and wiped it out.  But there was only one temple, but wherever there was a small colony of Jews, wherever there was a handful of Jewish men, they could start a synagogue And so they were every place, and they were the platform for Jesus, and they were the platform for the apostle Paul.

By the way, the temple was not a place for teaching, and the temple was not a place for preaching, unless like Jesus you happened to stand up in there and take off The temple was a place for offering sacrifice and making offerings.  But the synagogue was a place of teaching and preaching.  It was essentially a preaching/teaching place.  In fact, the church today pretty well has modeled its patterns after the synagogue Now we still have Jewish synagogues with us There’s one right down the street, only now they call it a – What? a temple. But it isn’t, because there’s no blood sacrifice being offered there.  It’s simply a synagogue, a gathering place.

MacArthur describes how Jesus made use of the synagogues for His teaching:

Well, Jesus took advantage of the opportunity for any dignitary, any visiting rabbi or teacher, to have the opportunity to speak And so Jesus would go in the synagogue and He would teach – Why? because this would reach the heart of Israel Listen, the most zealous people for God were in the synagogue.  That’s where you’d find the true hearts, if there were any in Israel.  That’s where the remnant would be, wouldn’t they?  They’d be there worshiping the true God in the best way they knew how. So Jesus went where they would listen to Him, where they would hear Him – the synagogue.  And He would go in, and He would teach the Scripture That was His pattern – to open the Scripture, to give exposition This is exactly what He did throughout the pattern of His ministry.  Even when He was in Nazareth He broke open His whole ministry by doing an exposition on an Old Testament scripture that referred to Him Even in the Sermon on the Mount He kept referring, “You have heard it said, and the Scripture says, and I say,” and He’d take off from there, either from a scripture of God’s authorship or from some ancient tradition that they had held to. Jesus would move off from there to do the exposition and turn the whole thing to Himself.

And so Jesus was teaching in the synagogues.  By the way, the word didask has to do with didactic, instructive relating of truth The word concentrates on the passing of information.  The word emphasizes the content, the passing on of information.  That’s what Jesus did.  And by the way, His method, I’m quite confident, was expository, taking the text and out of it teaching the principles I really believe this is the greatest way to preach and teach the Word of God.

Proclaiming, MacArthur notes, is different to teaching:

Secondly, it says in verse 23, “Not only was He teaching in their synagogue, but He was also preaching the gospel of the kingdom.”  Now this is a different word – kruss – and it means “to proclaim,” and it concentrates not so much on the didactic method, the relating of truth, the content, as it does on the very voice, the very style of proclamation. And it simply means “He heralded it out,” “He cried out.”  Often about Jesus you see the word ekraxan, “he cried out.” That’s preaching.  Teaching is where there is the careful, instructive relating of content.  It’s kind of from the mind to the mind.  Preaching is the crying out, the impassioned cry of Jesus Christ to the people.  And there it wasn’t so much in the synagogues, although He did both there as well, and the two are mixed up in His ministry so you can’t separate ’em.  There was never teaching without preaching, and there was never preaching without teaching, but the preaching is the crying out.  It is the heralding of the gospel.

Some have said preaching is the heralding of the gospel and teaching is the explaining of the gospel that’s been heralded.  Jesus did both – preaching, making a public announcement.  William Hendrickson, who’s a great commentator, says this:  “Between preaching and teaching there is a difference.  Though it is true that good preaching is also teaching, the emphasis is nevertheless not the same.  Preaching means proclamation.  Teaching, on the other hand, indicates imparting more detailed information regarding the proclamation that was made,” end quote.  That’s the idea.

The proclamation is what is called the krugma, and the teaching is what is called the didach.  You may see those terms sometime in your reading, and there’s never any good krugma without didach It doesn’t do any good to proclaim something if you don’t explain what it is.

MacArthur points out that Jesus avoided teaching about the socio-political issues of the day. He focused only on the kingdom of God:

Look at it in verse 23, the gospel of the kingdom, the good news of the kingdom.  This is what He was always talking about, always.  He was always talking about this.  In fact in Acts chapter 1, after He had risen from the dead, until He ascended, He had 40 days with His disciples, and it says in verse 2 of Acts 1, “Until the day in which he was taken up after he through the Holy Spirit had given commandments unto the apostles whom he’d chosen: to whom also he showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs” – now watch this – “being seen by them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”

From the time He began His ministry in Matthew right here, to the time that He was silenced in His ascension, He never spoke of anything other than the kingdom of God.  He never got dragged into social issues that were unrelated; He never got dragged into politics, into revolutions, into economics – He spoke of the kingdom of God.  And it’s a great pattern.  I feel in my heart I need to follow that kind of pattern.  Sometimes people ask me why I don’t say things about this and that and the other thing, and I guess maybe it’s because Jesus, until He was taken up, spoke to them the things concerning the kingdom of God. And if that was His priority, then that’s going to be my priority.

Jesus began His ministry gently by speaking of the good news of the Gospel: repent and be saved. As He neared the end of His ministry, however, He began to pass righteous judgement on wilful unbelief:

… first of all, the word “gospel” means something simple, good news, good news.  It’s good news and the world is full of bad news – Isn’t it? – all bad news.  This is the only good news, really good news.  The teaching and preaching of Jesus Christ was filled with good news.  You know something interesting?  Listen to this: John the Baptist’s preaching is never called good news, never.

Now maybe it was good news, and maybe it might have been called good news, but it never is.  I began to think about why.  Perhaps it is because the note of judgment is so strong, the ax is laid at the root, the winnowing fan is moving, the fire is consuming, and John fired out so much judgment and so much condemnation and cried for such repentance that maybe his message was too strong to win the gracious title “good news.”  But it really was good news, wasn’t it?  It’s kind of like the deal you’ve gotta have bad news before you get good news. But I think the reason John’s is never called good news is because there never really was good news until Jesus arrived.  There never really was any good news until Jesus came.  And it is Jesus who is said to preach the good news.  John was saying, “Get right, repent, get ready, and avoid judgment.”  And then Jesus came along and gave the other side of it, and come to Me and I’ll take you to heaven.  That was the good news.

After the Messiah had encountered more and more of the hypocrisy and more and more of the hostility of the hierarchy of Israel, His preaching became even more stern than John’s.  You know that?  But at the very beginning there was no strong word of condemnation.  Jesus didn’t come saying there’s going to be an ax, and there’s going to be a winnowing fan, and there’s going to be a fire consuming you.  You don’t hear that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  That comes later.  It was just the good news.  And what is the good news? – the kingdom, the kingdom.  That God is going to establish His rule.  That we can be a part of God’s dominion, that as Paul said we can be translated out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of His dear Son, that our sins can be forgiven.  Listen, the gospel of the kingdom is the same gospel preached today It’s just the message of salvation.

The good news is this: God has a kingdom; He wants you to be a citizen; here’s how.  That’s the good news.  Oh, it has all kinds of ramifications, as we’ll see as we go through Matthew.  But it’s the good news of salvation because that’s the way you get in His kingdom.  Once you’re in it has all kinds of features.  There is the element of the kingdom now in us in the Holy Spirit.  There is the element of the millennial kingdom for a thousand years on earth.  There is the element of the eternal kingdom and glory in the new heaven and the new earth forever with God.  It has different facets and wondrous things that we’re gonna see, but for now all we need to know is that the good news is that God has a kingdom and you can be in it.  You can be a part of it.  That’s good news.

I’ll tell you the alternative is pretty sad, isn’t it?  These people had long had a weariness of being in the kingdom of Rome, before that the kingdom of the Greeks, before that the kingdom of the Medes and the Persians, before that the Babylonians.  And even when they tried to do it on their own with their own kings, it was nothing but debauchery and evil.  And the very fact that there could be a kingdom with God was what they had longed for.  This was good news.  Jesus was saying, there’s a way to escape.  There’s good news, there’s a kingdom, and the good news is you can be a part of that kingdom.  How?  What is that good news that gets you into the kingdom?  First Corinthians, chapter 15 and verse 1, tells us.  Here’s the gospel which I preach to you – listen – “For I delivered unto you, first of all, that which I also received” – here comes the good news – “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures…that He was buried…that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”  That’s the gospel, folks.

The good news is this: Jesus died for you.  He rose for you.  Your sin is paid for.  Your eternal life is purchased, and you can be in God’s kingdom.  That’s good news, isn’t it?  And that’s what Jesus came preaching and teaching.  The plan of salvation is the good news.  Oh, He didn’t cover all the ground early on here.  He just simply announced, “I’ve got good news.  God has a kingdom for you.  God has a kingdom for you.”  In fact it would have been an earthly kingdom if they had believed, wouldn’t it?  If they had accepted Jesus as their Messiah, and they’d have been saved there, and the nation Israel had repented, and come to Christ, their kingdom would have been right then and there. 

It should be noted that everyone who heard Jesus understood the powerful accuracy of His teaching and preaching:

The words that He preached; “no man” – the officers had it right – “ever spoke like that man spoke.”  His words about the kingdom for three years went across the land of Israel.  They should have known.  It should have been obvious.  To some it was.  Listen to Luke 4, verse 22, “And all bore him witness.” This was when He was preaching in Nazareth.  And by the way, He did an exposition of an Isaiah passage; took Isaiah and just cracked it open for them.  Isaiah 61 – preached a sermon off of that text, and then they listened, and finally, in verse 22, they “bore him witness, and wondered at the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”  I mean, “these words coming from this guy who grew up in our town, the son of a carpenter.”  Verse 31, “And he came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and he taught them on the sabbath days. And they were astonished at his doctrine: for his word was with power.”  And in verse 36, they said, “What a word is this!”

In Matthew chapter 24, I think it’s verse 35, He said this: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”  He spoke an eternal word, a powerful word, like no one ever spoke.  They could never confound Him in His words. They could never trap Him in His words. They could never stump Him in His words. They were literally devastated by His words.  They were so powerful that they were literally thrown down in their own tracks when they tried to encounter Him and catch Him in His words.

I pray that John MacArthur’s exposition on our Lord’s preaching and teaching bring His words to life for us, if they have not done so already.

The Third Sunday after Epiphany is January 22, 2023.

Readings for Year A can be found here.

The Gospel is as follows (emphases mine):

Matthew 4:12-23

4:12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.

4:13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,

4:14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

4:15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles

4:16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

4:17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

4:18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen.

4:19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

4:20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

4:21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.

4:22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

4:23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

N.B.: This is a long post, as it entails much geography and history.

Last Sunday’s reading was John 1:29-42, which was our Lord’s first call to John the Baptist’s disciples John (unnamed), Andrew and Simon Peter. Anyone who missed reading it and is unfamiliar with the text might wish to examine it.

Furthermore, today’s First Reading is Isaiah’s prophecy of our Lord’s arrival in Galilee:

Isaiah 9:1-4

9:1 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

9:2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

9:3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

9:4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested, He withdrew to Galilee (verse 12).

Unbelievers often think that Jesus operated randomly. On the contrary, God had a plan, and everything went according to His plan, which will become clearer in this post.

John MacArthur discusses John 1:29-42 and the verses that follow to give us more of an insight into our Lord’s initial calling of His disciples, who were not yet His Apostles:

First day, “He is here.”  Second day, John says, “Behold Him.  Behold Him.  See Him.  That’s who He is.”  And he points to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, the Son of God.  There was a third day, verse 35“Again the next day John stood with two of his disciples, and looking upon Jesus as he walked away” – the best rendering – “he looked to Jesus as he walked away.”  First day He stood in the crowd.  Second day He came out of the crowd and stood with John, and John said, “This is Him.”  And now He’s walking away.  Day three.

Look at verse 36, “‘Behold the Lamb of God!’  And the two disciples heard him speak, and they” – Did what? – “they followed Jesus.”  Day one, John says, “He’s here.”  Day two, he says, “Behold Him.”  Day three, he says, “Follow Him.”  “Follow Him.”  In effect, that’s what he was saying; and so Jesus lingered after His temptation for three days so that the testimony of John, the witness of John, as chapter 1:19 says, could be completed, and then He walked away And John said to his own disciples, “You go after Him.  You follow Him.”  Jesus was making the transition from the days of the Old Testament to the New, from John the Baptist to Himself; and so Jesus walked away; and they followed Him.  And you know what?  He called them to be His disciples.

From verses 38 to 51 of John 1, Jesus calls the first group of disciples.  Andrew, and another one who isn’t named – and take a wild guess who that might be.  John; and Peter and Philip, and who was the last one?  Nathaniel.  He gathers the first group, makes the first call.

Matthew Henry’s commentary has a summary of events from that point to today’s Gospel reading and explains why Matthew begins his account here:

Several passages in the other gospels, especially in that of St. John, are supposed, in the order of the story of Christ’s life, to intervene between his temptation and his preaching in Galilee. His first appearance after his temptation, was when John Baptist pointed to him, saying, Behold the Lamb of God, John 1 29. After that, he went up to Jerusalem, to the passover (John 2.), discoursed with Nicodemus (John 3.), with the woman of Samaria (John 4.), and then returned into Galilee, and preached there. But Matthew, having had his residence in Galilee, begins his story of Christ’s public ministry with his preaching there, which here we have an account of.

John has the intervening detail because he was following Jesus and was a witness to it.

MacArthur elaborates on that same timeline and calls our attention to the following verses in John 3:

22 After this [teaching Nicodemus], Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. 23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. 24 (This was before John was put in prison.)

He says:

Isn’t that interesting?  John and Jesus simultaneously preaching and baptizing.  The transition isn’t over yet.  There’s still a little overlap.  John is still gathering people to himself, transmitting them to Jesus, little by little; and both are working side by side.  It’s a time of transition – and John kept on baptizing until verse 24 says, “He was not yet cast into prison.”  He continued his ministry till he was thrown in prison.  In fact, that’s the way God stopped his ministry

John had done his work.  He had heralded the King.  He had pointed Him out.  He had told the people to follow Him.  Jesus had come to Jerusalem, proclaimed Himself.  He’d come to His temple.  He cleansed His temple.  He’d gone to Cana.  He’d done a miracle to establish who He was, and then He rested a little while in Capernaum.  He came back to the – to be with His disciples, continued His ministry while John continued to preach. But now it was time for Him to begin His work.  It was time for John to phase out and Jesus to phase in; and Jesus knew He had to go to Galilee to start, so we come to chapter 4. But before that, at the end of chapter 3, John gives us the great phase out. And John says in verse 30, “He must” – What? – “increase, and I must decrease.”  He says, “It’s the end of me and the beginning of Him,” and Jesus takes over in chapter 4.

MacArthur points out the divine plan at work:

We see Him begin His ministry at the right point, in the right place, by the right proclamation, with the right partners, on the right plan, for the right purpose.  I just want you to get the picture that God does things right. When Jesus began His ministry, it was right – at the right point; in the right place; with, by the right proclamation; with the right partners; on the right plan; for the right purpose.

His ministry began, first of all, at the right point.  Let’s look just at that.  At the right point, verse 12.  “Now when Jesus heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee.”  The sense of timing in the life of Jesus Christ is absolutely amazing.  He was always on a divine timetable.  He had in His heart an eternal clock clicking away, with sovereign hands ticking off His destiny with unfailing accuracy.  He moved gracefully in accord with a divine timetable.  Everything at its exact moment.

John’s Gospel has several references to that timetable:

Throughout the gospel of John, particularly, He talks about His hour has not yet come His hour is not yet come.  His hour is not yet come.  And then, later on in the gospel, all of a sudden you find Him beginning to say in the 13th chapter, “Mine hour is come.”  “Mine hour is come.”  You find it again in the 17th chapter.  He had a sense of timing that was divine.  There was a time and a point for everything, and Jesus knew that He would begin His official ministry when John was in prison It was time to start.

Matthew has this, this aspect of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration to set up as a real feature here for us that we might see the incredible and amazing accuracy of God’s historic plan.  It was the hour for Jesus to begin.

Surely, Jesus in His omniscience would have known that John was in prison. No doubt, but MacArthur says:

Well, He never used His supernatural knowledge – to bypass ordinary means that could accomplish the same thing.  That was part of His becoming human — submitting Himself where … at all possible, to all human characteristics So He heard, and what He heard is this:  John was cast into prison. 

I will summarise MacArthur’s account of why John was thrown into prison, for those who do not know the story:

I’ll show you how it happened, because the whole story is in Luke 3:19.  Two verses tell it; Luke 3:19

“But Herod the tetrarch – now that’s just a mathematical word that means a ruler over a fourth of something; Herod who was the ruler over a fourth of something.  This man’s real name was Herod Antipas

Now, let’s see what happened.  “Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by John the Baptist for Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison”

Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great and Malthace.  He had a half-brother named Herod Philip.  Please, that is not the same as Philip the tetrarch.  He named two sons Philip, just to go with the two wives named Mariamne, so nobody could ever figure out anything. Anyway, Herod Antipas had a half-brother by a different mother, but the same father, by the name of Philip.  Now, Philip was such a rotten kid that he was rejected by his father, and he didn’t get a piece of anything.  He wound up in Rome living as a private citizen He was extremely wealthy, but he had no royalty.  He was not given any kind of kingdom.  He was simply a private citizen.

Now, he had a wife who was just a horrible, ghastly, immoral, awful woman by the name of Herodias. So you have this man named Philip, who is a non-ruling member of Herod the Great’s family, living in Rome.  He’s got this wife, Herodias, who eventually gets her daughter, Salome, to dance and get John the Baptist’s head on a plate She’s a rotten, vile, incredible woman who literally destroyed everything she touched …

Well, Herod Antipas visited Rome to see his half-brother, who was married to his father’s son’s daughter, Herodias. And to make it worse, he seduced his half-brother’s niece, Herodias, committing some kind of horrible incest to add to what was already a horrible debacle He literally seduced Herodias, committed adultery, incest, and led her to divorce Philip and marry him Well, you know what happened?  John the Baptist didn’t think that was right, and it says in verse 19, um, that John the Baptist “reproved him for all the evils which Herod had done.”

You know, he was a bold, blunt, powerful, godly man; and he just said it because it needed to be said.  You know what happened?  Herod Antipas grabbed him and threw him in prison, and it wasn’t very long, and it is Matthew 14 that Salome did her dance, and they went in there, and they whacked his head off, and brought it in on a plate. He was imprisoned in a dungeon, in a castle of Machaerus.  Machaerus is located on the shore of the Dead Sea, and archeologists have found it.  They found the tunnels.  They found the caves that were a part of that ancient prison; and it was there that John was kept until he was finally beheaded, all because he was bold and strong and fearless

So Jesus withdrew to Galilee, walking towards rather than away from potential danger:

Was Jesus afraid?  Did He run to Galilee because He feared what Herod Antipas might do to Him?”  I’ve got news for you.  I told you about ten minutes ago that Herod Antipas was the ruler of – What? Galilee. If, if that was the problem, then He went the wrong way.  He shoulda run into the territory of Archelaus, or the territory of Philip the tetrarch.

It should be noted that the Jewish hierarchy were delighted when Herod Antipas had John the Baptist arrested and imprisoned. This, too, was part of the divine plan:

John chapter 4, verse 1.   Now listen.  This is most interesting.  Do you know what the Jewish leaders felt when John was imprisoned by Herod?  You know how they felt?  Take a guess.  They were thrilled.  They didn’t try to stop it.  They didn’t try to forbid it.  They were 100 percent thrilled that John the Baptist got put in prison.  Jesus knew it.  They wouldn’t have done it, because it would’ve feared the people; but when it was done, they were thrilled.  Now look at verse 1 of John 4.  “When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, He left Judea and departed into Galilee.”

Listen, they hated John for making so many disciples; and they were glad when Herod did what he did; and, listen, when Jesus heard that they knew He did more than John did, then He knew well what would be coming for Him You say, “Was He afraid of them?  Was He afraid of the Pharisees?”  No, He was avoiding a premature crisis, and He did it all through His life.  It wasn’t His hour, right?  It wasn’t His hour.  It wasn’t time for Him to be captured in Jerusalem.  It wasn’t time for Him to have a conflict with the Pharisees.  It wasn’t on God’s clock or God’s calendar yet.  Listen, when the time came, Jesus would face those Pharisees nose to nose He would face those religious leaders head on.  He would face the Sadducees, the chief rulers of the Jews, and He wouldn’t wince, and He wouldn’t back down when the time came.  He even said to them, “You don’t take My life from Me.  I lay it down of Myself.  I have power to lay it down.  I have power to take it up.”  And when they came to get Him in the garden in John 18, He said, “You just listen to this.  If I wanted, I could call on legions of angels.”  He didn’t run because He was afraid of Herod, and He didn’t run because He was afraid of the Pharisees.  He went to Galilee because He was avoiding a premature crisis.

Galilee, though endowed with abundant fish in the sea — or Lake Gennesaret, as Luke calls it — and wonderfully fertile land, was essentially a backwater. No one outside of the area had a high opinion of it.

Henry says:

The place where he preached; in Galilee, a remote part of the country, that lay furthest from Jerusalem, as was there looked upon with contempt, as rude and boorish. The inhabitants of that country were reckoned stout men, fit for soldiers, but not polite men, or fit for scholars. Thither Christ went, there he set up the standard of his gospel; and in this, as in other things, he humbled himself.

Matthew says that Jesus left Nazareth and made His home in Capernaum, by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali (verse 13).

Henry reminds us:

… he left Nazareth; particular notice is taken of that, v. 13. And with good reason did he leave Nazareth; for the men of that city thrust him out from among them, Luke 4 29. He made them his first, and a very fair, offer of his service, but they rejected him and his doctrine, and were filled with indignation at him and it; and therefore he left Nazareth, and shook off the dust of his feet for a testimony against those there, who would not have him to teach them. Nazareth was the first place that refused Christ, and was therefore refused by him. Note, It is just with God, to take the gospel and the means of grace from those that slight them, and thrust them away. Christ will not stay long where he is not welcome. Unhappy Nazareth! If thou hadst known in this thy day the things that belong to thy peace, how well had it been for thee! But now they are hid from thine eyes.

MacArthur has more:

When He got to Galilee, first place He went, where do you think?  Where had He spent the first 30 years of His life?  Where?  Nazareth – that little town, that little town on the brow of that hill.  I’ve seen it a few times.  That little town that just sits up there and kinda sparkles.  Nazareth.  He went to Nazareth, and Luke tells us exactly what happened.  Luke 4:16, “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.  And as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day.”  I imagine from the time He was a little boy that was true, don’t you?  I mean, I imagine from the time He was a child, Joseph and Mary had taken Him there.

And He stood up to read this time.  “And there was delivered to Him a book of the prophet Isaiah.  And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he’s anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’  And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and he sat down.  And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.  And he began to say unto them, ‘This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.'”  Wow!  What a statement!  He was saying, “I’m the Messiah.”

“And they all bore witness and wondered at his gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth.  And they said, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’  And he said unto them, ‘Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal thyself: whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.’  And he said, ‘Verily I say unto you, no prophet is accepted in his own country.’  And that was really the beginning of the end.  He knew it, and you remember what happened?  When He got all done with His speech, verse 28, “Everybody in the synagogue, they heard these things, were filled with wrath They rose up, thrust him out of the city, led him to the brow of a hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong.”

…  “He, passing through the midst of them, went his way.”  It was too soon for Him to die.  He passed from their midst. 

Eventually, Capernaum ended up being no better than Nazareth:

You know, Capernaum wasn’t any more gracious to Jesus than was Nazareth, and one day Jesus cursed that city and said of that city, “Capernaum, it’s gonna be better for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than it’s gonna be for you. This was My home.  You saw what I did.  You heard what I said.  You turned your back on Me.  Better for Sodom and Gomorrah than for you.

MacArthur gives us two reasons why Jesus went to Galilee rather than Judea or Jerusalem:

lest people think His message is an accommodation of current Judaism. But His message is for the world.

In my exegesis on Matthew 3:13-17, read two weeks ago on the First Sunday after Epiphany in Year A, I cited MacArthur’s sermon explaining that Matthew wanted the Jews to see Jesus as the Messiah, the King of Kings.

MacArthur reiterates that message in discussing today’s verses:

We’ve already seen the King’s ancestry, the King’s arrival, the King’s adoration, the King’s anticipation, the King’s announcer, the King’s affirmation, the King’s advantage, and now the King’s activity.  The King begins His ministry and Matthew picks it up

MacArthur gives us the history of Galilee, Zebulun and Naphtali.

This is what he says about Galilee:

“Galilee” comes from a Hebrew word, galil, which means “a circle,” and Galilee is, believe it or not, a circle.  It is an area that circles the sea known as the Sea of Galilee.  It is also called the Lake of Chinnereth, but basically we know it as the Sea of Galilee.  It is a country that circles that sea, bordered on the east plateau that now is known as the East Bank, bordered on the west by the Mediterranean Sea, on the north by the mountains of southern Lebanon, on the south by Judea, the southern part.  And there that circle surrounds the Sea of Galilee, and it’s known as Galilu, “Galilee.”  It’s stretched from the Lithiney River in the north to the Plain of Esdraelon, and even below.  On the west, all the way through the coastal plain to the sea, the Mediterranean Sea and on the east, it was bounded by the cliffs, that in that day were possessed by the nation Syria – today Arab territory.  Basically Galilee is about 50 miles from north to south and about 25 miles from east to west – 25 miles wide, 50 miles long; an area surrounding the Sea of Galilee.

Now it was a very densely populated area And you’ve got to have a little geography, folks, so this whole thing is going to mean something to you when you get into the Galilean ministry.  It is the most fertile region of Palestine, from the southern part of Palestine down around the city today known as Tel Aviv; down in the south, anciently known as Joppa.  Remember Joppa?  Peter was there on the roof when he got the vision.  Well, from the southern part all the way north into Galilee – now the city of Haifa being the major city of the north – that whole coastal plain is called anciently the Valley of Sharon And when you hear about the rose of Sharon, and that speaks volumes to anybody who understands geography because that valley is intensely fertile It is bordered all the way along by the Carmel Mountain range – you remember Elijah on Mt. Carmel.

So Carmel is a group of mountains, not one mountain, but a group that runs up the coast; and between the Carmel range and the sea is the valley of Sharon, incredibly fertile.  Then over the Carmel range there’s another area between the Carmel range and the Sea of Galilee – another fertile area, tremendously fertile.  This was the most productive land in all of the nation of Israel.  In fact, there was a saying that it was easier to raise a legion of olives in Galilee than to bring up one child in Judea.

MacArthur says that Josephus the historian was once a governor of Galilee:

Josephus, who at one time was the governor of Galilee – maybe you didn’t know that; Josephus the historian – said, quote, “It is throughout rich in soil and pasture, producing every variety of tree, and inviting by its productivity even those who have the least inclination for agriculture, it is everywhere killed and everywhere it is productive.”  Even people without a green thumb can make anything grow in Galilee.  And, of course, nowadays the nation Israel can produce all that it needs to supply its own nation with food right in those areas.

Now it also, because of its fertility, had an enormous population.  In fact, Josephus tells us, and he’s writing about the time of the New Testament era – maybe not pinpointing it exactly but close – and Josephus tells us that there were 204 villages in Galilee at that time Now if you know anything about an area 25 miles wide and 50 miles long, you know to get 204 villages in there is pretty packed.  In fact, none of the villages, according to Josephus, had fewer than 15,000 people, which would make the total population of Galilee about three million sixty thousand It’s amazing that they had that many people there and still had enough room left to grow the things, the things they grew.

Culturally, Galilee was less conventional than Jerusalem and had a lot of Gentiles. It was part of a major trade route to Africa:

It was much less traditional than Judea.  It would be sort of like the difference between trying to preach the gospel in a rural area of Italy as opposed to trying to preach the gospel in the Vatican City.  You just might run into a little tougher opposition in the Vatican City, because there was where the center of religious tradition existed.  The same is true in terms of the land of Israel.  Jerusalem was the place of tradition.  Galilee was a little freer.  In fact, Josephus says of the Galileans, and I quote him again, “They were fond of innovations and by nature disposed to change and they delighted in seditions,” or they liked revolution.  They liked to disagree. That’s a good place to begin.  In fact, the historians tell us that it was a great place to get a bunch of people for a revolution Or, if you wanted to start an insurrection, you just went to Galilee and gathered your army.  They were non-traditionalists.  They were ready, at the drop of a hat, to go against the grain.  And Jesus knew that that would be a good place to gather followers who wouldn’t be afraid to fight the old tradition.

Now the name Galilee got a little bit added to it, and if you’ll notice at the end of verse 15, it is called “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  Now that was the name of mockery because Galilee, though it was territorially Israel, had long ago begun to kind of mix together with the Gentiles And, of course, to a Jew that’s a very despicable thing to do, so there was much frowning upon Galilee because of the mixture of people that lived there But, you see, Galilee was surrounded by foreign people Along the coast, the very coastline itself, was that great people who sailed the Mediterranean Sea known as the Phoenicians.  On the northern part were Syrians.  On the southern part were Samaritans.  You remember the southern part of Israel, and the northern part were separated by Samaria where the half-breeds lived.  So they had the half-breed Samaritans on the bottom of them, and they had on the north and east the Syrians, and on the west they had the Phoenicians.

And so there was a tremendous non-Jewish influence And it tended to sort of water down the traditionalism, and they were open to something fresh, and they were open to something new, and Jesus knew that He selected that area.  Additionally, the roads of the world, the great roads of the world running from the east to the west and the north to the south, passed immediately through Galilee Now we know about this; in fact, there was a very famous road in those days known as the Way of the Sea And the Way of the Sea led from Damascus through Galilee and then made a left turn and went right down to Africa Things coming from the eastern part of the world would come to Damascus; they’d be taken west to Galilee and then straight down into Africa.  The road to the east went through Galilee and right on out to the furthest frontiers of the east, so it was a trade route Because of that there was a tremendous mingling.  Jerusalem never had that.  Because of Jerusalem’s location it was isolated It was on a high, high plateau.  People didn’t bother to go up there.  It was in a desolate desert area to the east and a coastline to the west – desert to the south, and so Jerusalem never had that trade element as did Galilee The traffic of the world passed through there.

MacArthur gives us the history of Zebulun and Naphtali:

Listen, Galilee’s geographical position had affected its history dramatically.  Originally Galilee was assigned when God gave Israel the land.  You remember God gave Israel the land.  They broke it up into twelve tribes, remember that?  Well, the Galilean section was given to Asher, Naphtali, and Zebulun.  You can find that in Joshua chapter 9.  It was Asher, Naphtali, and Zebulun.  Notice in verse 13 it tells us that it’s “the borders of Zabulon and Naphtali,” and that is also in verse 15.  So it was the original territory of these tribes.  But these tribes made a terrible mistake.  When God sent all the tribes into Israel, after the wanderings, and God got them all organized. He told them to do one thing, one very important thing.  He said, “Run out all the Canaanites.”  Get rid of all the Canaanites.  Zebulun and Naphtali didn’t do that.  And so from the very start, because they didn’t expel the Canaanites, they began with a mixed population.

So here they had this mixture from the very beginning.  In fact, in the 8th century B.C., 800 years before Christ, the Assyrians literally engulfed the whole land and took the people exile; and strangers settled in Galilee.  Another important date in the history of Galilee is 164 B.C.  A hundred and sixty-four years before the time of Christ, Simon Maccabees chased the Syrians back to their own territory and took back a remnant of Galilee.  In 104 B.C. a man named Aristobulus reconquered Galilee totally for the Jewish nation, and you know what he did?  He forcibly circumcised its inhabitants He was going to make it Jewish no matter what.  So, from the actual time of the captivity of the northern kingdom, in the 8th century, clear to 164, that was a place inhabited by strangers.  In 164 there was a remnant.  In 104 it was conquered again for the Jewish nation and repopulated by Jews.  But the influence through those centuries and centuries and centuries of Gentiles had tended to diminish the strong Jewish traditionalism of that part of the land of Israel.

So it was a place of variety, open to new ideas and new influences.  And Jesus was to begin in fertile soil where He knew He could gain a hearing before He went to Jerusalem where they slammed the door in His face and nailed Him to a cross.

MacArthur gives us the history of Capernaum:

The word means “the village of Nahum,” “the village of Nahum.”  Some say it was named after the prophet Nahum.  I don’t know.  If you translate the word Nahum it means “compassion.”  It could just be a title – “the village of compassion.”

It’s a famous little town.  In the time of Jesus it was a flourishing city Matthew himself had his tax office there Matthew 9:9 tells us that.  It was there that Jesus called his disciples.  John 1 – we studied last time – the first time Jesus called His disciples, the first group that He ever called, He called in Capernaum.  We’ll see again there in Capernaum, here in the fourth chapter, as we note His meeting with His disciples again.  It was in Capernaum that Jesus did miracle after miracle after miracle, and I don’t even want to take the time but there are at least eight different miracles in the book of Matthew that occurred in Capernaum.

… You know, I’ve been to Capernaum twice.  They have uncovered the remains of the city.  The ruins of the ancient synagogue at Capernaum have been lifted up.  The pillars are up.  The great beams of concrete or stone – really is what they are – stone have been laid on bits and pieces of the façade and the roof.  They have reconstructed the synagogue, and it’s a fantastic thing.  It’s right on the water.  You can stand in the middle of the synagogue and flip a rock into the Sea of Galilee.  To the left of that little synagogue, just a matter of a few steps away, is a house that they’ve uncovered.  They say it is the earliest house occupied by Christians, because everywhere they found the sign of the fish.  Some archeologists believe it was Peter’s house and that’s why the first church was established there.  But they know that Christians met there because they found all over the place the sign of the fish … 

Now the location was strategic.  It was right at the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee, a vital place.  You could get there by boat; you could get there by land – access from anywhere.  Now notice that it tells us that Capernaum, in verse 13, was in the seacoast, right on the water, “in the borders of Zabulon and Naphtali,” that is, in the tribal territory which once was assigned to Zebulun and Naphtali. And it’s called Galilee at the end of verse 13, or end of verse 15, “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  It was really Galilee of the Jews until all those influences had come in.  That was a title of mockery.

You know, one of the sad things about Capernaum is further on in Matthew.  We’ll get to this, but let me just give you a preview, Matthew 11:23, “And thou, Capernaum” – here’s the final verdict on His own city – “and thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shall be brought down to hades.”  Capernaum was exalted unto heaven because that was Jesus’ city.  Any city that could be the city of Jesus would be the recipient of the most exalted person that ever walked the earth.  They were exalted to the heavens but would “be brought down to hades: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.  But I say unto you, ‘That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.’”  That tremendous city situated, and I’ll tell you, on one of the most beautiful locations of any city I’ve ever seen – absolutely magnificently nestled at the foot of those beautiful hills, right on the coast, an incredible place for a city – and right now, in 1978, you know how many people live in Capernaum?  One old monk if he hasn’t died.  Desolate, as desolate as Sodom and Gomorrah, brought down to hades because it never recognized the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew says that Jesus went there to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy (verses 14 and 15) in the aforementioned First Reading.

The prophecy said that the people who have sat in darkness have seen a great light — Jesus — and, for those of that region and in the shadow of (spiritual) death, light has dawned (verse 16).

Henry summarises the Old Testament history in those verses:

The prophecy that was fulfilled is this, v. 14-16. It is quoted from Isa 9 1, 2, but with some variation. The prophet in that place is foretelling a greater darkness of affliction to befal the contemners of Immanuel, than befel the countries there mentioned, either in their first captivity under Benhadad, which was but light (1 Kings 15 20), or in their second captivity under the Assyrian, which was much heavier, 2 Kings 15 29. The punishment of the Jewish nation for rejecting the gospel should be sorer than either (see Isa 8 21, 22); for those captivated places had some reviving in their bondage, and saw a great light again, ch. 9 2. This is Isaiah’s sense; but the Scripture has many fulfillings; and the evangelist here takes only the latter clause, which speaks of the return of the light of liberty and prosperity to those countries that had been in the darkness of captivity, and applies it to the appearing of the gospel among them.

The places are spoken of, v. 15. The land of Zebulun is rightly said to be by the sea coast, for Zebulun was a haven of ships, and rejoiced in her going out, Gen 49 13; Deut 33 18. Of Naphtali, it had been said, that he should give goodly words (Gen 49 21), and should be satisfied with favour (Deut 33 23), for from him began the gospel; goodly words indeed, and such as bring to a soul God’s satisfying favour. The country beyond Jordan is mentioned likewise, for there we sometimes find Christ preaching, and Galilee of the Gentiles, the upper Galilee to which the Gentiles resorted for traffic, and where they were mingled with the Jews; which intimates a kindness in reserve for the poor Gentiles. When Christ came to Capernaum, the gospel came to all those places round about; such diffusive influences did the Sun of righteousness cast.

He explains the spiritual darkness the people were in and the light that Christ and the Gospel brought to them:

Now, concerning the inhabitants of these places, observe, (1.) The posture they were in before the gospel came among them (v. 16); they were in darkness. Note, Those that are without Christ, are in the dark, nay, they are darkness itself; as the darkness that was upon the face of the deep. Nay, they were in the region and shadow of death; which denotes not only great darkness, as the grave is a land of darkness, but great danger. A man that is desperately sick, and not likely to recover, is in the valley of the shadow of death, though not quite dead; so the poor people were on the borders of damnation, though not yet damned-dead in law. And, which is worst of all, they were sitting in this condition. Sitting in a continuing posture; where we sit, we mean to stay; they were in the dark, and likely to be so, despairing to find the way out. And it is a contented posture; they were in the dark, and they loved darkness, they chose it rather than light; they were willingly ignorant. Their condition was sad; it is still the condition of many great and mighty nations, which are to be thought of, and prayed for, with pity. But their condition is more sad, who sit in darkness in the midst of gospel-light. He that is in the dark because it is night, may be sure that the sun will shortly arise; but he that is in the dark because he is blind, will not so soon have his eyes opened. We have the light, but what will that avail us, if we be not the light in the Lord? (2.) The privilege they enjoyed, when Christ and his gospel came among them; it was as great a reviving as ever light was to a benighted traveller. Note, When the gospel comes, light comes; when it comes to any place, when it comes to any soul, it makes day there, John 3 19; Luke 1 78, 79. Light is discovering, it is directing; so is the gospel.

It is a great light; denoting the clearness and evidence of gospel-revelations; not like the light of a candle, but the light of the sun when he goes forth in his strength. Great in comparison with the light of the law, the shadows of which were now done away. It is a great light, for it discovers great things and of vast consequence; it will last long, and spread far. And it is a growing light, intimated in that word, It is sprung up. It was but spring of day with them; now the day dawned, which afterward shone more and more. The gospel-kingdom, like a grain of mustard-seed or the morning light, was small in its beginnings, gradual in its growth, but great in its perfection.

Observe, the light sprang up to them; they did not go to seek it, but were prevented with the blessings of this goodness. It came upon them ere they were aware, at the time appointed, by the disposal of him who commandeth the morning, and causes the day-spring to know its place, that it may take hold of the ends of the earth, Job 38 12, 13.

From that time, Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (verse 17), which is the same message that John the Baptist had preached.

Henry explains:

He had been preaching, before this, in Judea, and had made and baptized many disciples (John 4 1); but his preaching was not so public and constant as now it began to be. The work of the ministry is so great and awful [awe-inspiring], that it is fit to be entered upon by steps and gradual advances.

The subject which Christ dwelt upon now in his preaching (and it was indeed the sum and substance of all his preaching), was the very same John has preached upon (ch. 3 2); Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; for the gospel is the same for substance under various dispensations; the commands the same, and the reasons to enforce them the same; an angel from heaven dares not preach any other gospel (Gal 1 8), and will preach this, for it is the everlasting gospel. Fear God, and, by repentance, give honour to him, Rev 14 6, 7. Christ put a great respect upon John’s ministry, when he preached to the same purport that John had preached before him. By this he showed that John was his messenger and ambassador; for when he brought the errand himself, it was the same that he had sent by him. Thus did God confirm the word of his messenger, Isa 44 26. The Son came on the same errand that the servants came on (ch. 21 37), to seek fruit, fruits meet for repentance. Christ had lain in the bosom of the Father, and could have preached sublime notions of divine and heavenly things, that should have alarmed and amused the learned world, but he pitches upon this old, plain text, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. [1.] This he preached first upon; he began with this. Ministers must not be ambitious of broaching new opinions, framing new schemes, or coining new expressions, but must content themselves with plain, practical things, with the word that is nigh us, even in our mouth, and in our heart. We need not go up to heaven, nor down to the deep, for matter or language in our preaching. As John prepared Christ’s way, so Christ prepared his own, and made way for the further discoveries he designed, with the doctrine of repentance. If any man will do this part of his will, he shall know more of his doctrine, John 7 17. [2.] This is preached often upon; wherever he went, this was his subject, and neither he nor his followers ever reckoned it worn threadbare, as those would have done, that have itching ears, and are fond of novelty and variety more than that which is truly edifying. Note, That which has been preached and heard before, may yet very profitably be preached and heard again; but then it should be preached and heard better, and with new affections; what Paul had said before, he said again, weeping, Phil 3 1, 18. [3.] This he preached as gospel; “Repent, review your ways, and return to yourselves.” Note, The doctrine of repentance is right gospel-doctrine. Not only the austere Baptist, who was looked upon as a melancholy, morose man, but the sweet and gracious Jesus, whose lips dropped as a honey-comb, preached repentance; for it is an unspeakable privilege that room is left for repentance. [4.] The reason is still the same; The kingdom of heaven is at hand; for it was not reckoned to be fully come, till that pouring out of the Spirit after Christ’s ascension. John had preached the kingdom of heaven at hand above a year before this; but now it was so much the stronger; now is the salvation nearer, Rom 13 11. We should be so much the more quickened to our duty, as we see the day approaching, Heb 10 25.

MacArthur says:

Luke 19:10 says, “For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.”  The work of winning the lost is God’s concern and Christ’s concern, and also the greatest concern of the Holy Spirit.  For it is the Holy Spirit who comes, according to John 16, to convict men of sin and of righteousness and of judgment.  It is the Holy Spirit who comes upon the church, and after we have received the Holy Spirit, we are made witnesses, Jesus said, “Unto me in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost part of the earth.”  The great concern of God is evangelism The great concern of Christ is evangelism The great concern of the Spirit is evangelism, saving the lost. 

When you come into the New Testament, you find it also is the apostles’ greatest concern Certainly, it was true of Paul.

As Jesus walked by the sea, He saw Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen (verse 18).

And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people (verse 19).

For these verses, I prefer the old translations. Here is Henry’s version of those two verses:

18 And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. 19 And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.

Interestingly, at least in the UK, the word ‘fisher’ is being used once again, as fisherman is rather outdated because more women are entering that industry.

And what is more memorable than ‘I will make you fishers of men’? It’s easily committed to memory.

This is our Lord’s second calling of Simon Peter and Andrew. With John the Baptist, Jesus called them to be His disciples.

Here Jesus is calling them to be Apostles.

MacArthur tells us:

This is phase two of their call.  I’m going to give you a little technical thing that’ll help you in your study of the gospels. We have several different calls of the disciples in the gospel.  Each gospel writer, for his own purposes, chooses one or the other.  There was a sequence of things.  In other words, there were at least five different times when Jesus sort of called them; each one taking them to a different level, kind of like you.  Once you were called to salvation, right?  Then, maybe there was a time in your life when you were called to a new level of commitment.  Then, maybe there was a time in your life, like in my life, when you were called to serve Jesus Christ in a specific way.  Then, maybe there was a time in your life when you were called to a specific place, to Grace Church, or some other specific ministry.  In other words, the way God directs us may have phases, and that is true in the case of the disciples.

The first call is in John chapter 1 ... This was their call to salvation.  Andrew, John, Simon, Phillip, Nathaniel and James called to salvation.  This was the initial call, and you remember it was when John the Baptist said, “Don’t follow me anymore.  Follow Him.”  They took off after Jesus Christ, and it was the call to salvation. 

Now, this is phase two in Matthew 4:18.  This is the call to be fishers of men.  They’re now going to follow Jesus, but it was only a kind of a momentary thing here.  It isn’t the full final departing from everything.  For now, they followed Him.  For this moment, for this day, for this time, they were called to win souls.  They were called to fish for men.  They were called to come after Him.

Immediately, Simon Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus (verse 20).

When Jesus moved on, He saw James and John, the sons of Zebedee, in the boat with their father, mending nets; He called them (verse 21).

James and John immediately left the boat and their father to follow Jesus (verse 22).

MacArthur says:

The Lord, when He thought about evangelism, He had a lot of folks in mind.  So He called these, Simon and Andrew, but also look at verse 21, “And going from there, He saw two other brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a boat with Zebedee their father mending their nets; and He called them.”  Now He’s got four here, and He has a plan for them.  They’re rough jewels, these guys.  I want you to know that.  They are rough jewels.  They are tough, crusty, outdoorsmen.  No doubt a certain crudeness.  We know that in the case of Peter, and no doubt true of the others to some extent.  They had a lot of problems.  They had a lack of spiritual perception.  It didn’t matter what Jesus said for the first few months of His ministry, they never did figure it out …

… Jesus had to unravel everything.  They had a lot of learning to do.  They had a terrible lack of sympathy.  They were really an unsympathetic bunch …

They were terrible at prayer meeting.  They kept falling asleep.  They didn’t have a whole lot of courage.  When the shepherd was smitten, the sheep were scattered, right?  Great bunch!  No spiritual perception, no sympathy, no humility, no sense of forgiveness, not able to persevere in prayer, and a bunch of cowards.  “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  That’ll tell you what the Lord can do with you and me.  He’s terrific with raw material that shows little or no potential It’s a good lesson too.

I know something, though.  Jesus saw something there, didn’t He?  He saw something in them.  He knew what He was doing.  He picked out a potential.  He saw it there.  I thought to myself, as I was going through this, that the fact that He picked fishermen is sort of a rebuke to the whole Jewish system, isn’t it?  I mean why didn’t He pick rabbis to be His team; great, brilliant, astute, knowledgeable rabbis, or great leaders of Israel?  Fishermen?  What do they know?  They’d never been to school.  Maybe they can’t even read.  He relied on something better, didn’t He, than worldly wisdom?  Something better than human influence, something better than formal religion, something better than education, something better than ritual.  “Not many noble, not many mighty,” said Paul.  “He’s chosen the foolish things of the world,” the base things of the world

For three years, Jesus trained His men how to be available, how to have no favorites, how to be sensitive, how to secure a public confession, how to use love and tenderness and how to take time and to apply everything they ever knew as fishermen; patience, perseverance, courage, an eye for the right moment, and hide themselves in the midst of all of it.  I think whoever said it is right when he said, “Evangelism is not taught as much as it’s caught,” like everything else in the Christian life.

Henry says that the Old Testament also has examples of humble workers being called for something greater:

Note, Diligence in an honest calling is pleasing to Christ, and no hindrance to a holy life. Moses was called from keeping sheep, and David from following the ewes, to eminent employments. Idle people lie more open to the temptations of Satan than to the calls of God. (4.) They were men that were accustomed to hardships and hazards; the fisher’s trade, more than any other, is laborious and perilous; fishermen must be often wet and cold; they must watch, and wait, and toil, and be often in perils by waters. Note, Those who have learned to bear hardships, and run hazards, are best prepared for the fellowship and discipleship of Jesus Christ. Good soldiers of Christ must endure hardness.

As for James and John leaving Zebedee behind, Henry tells us:

Note, Those who would follow Christ aright, must leave all to follow him. Every Christian must leave all in affection, set loose to all, must hate father and mother (Luke 14 26), must love them less than Christ, must be ready to part with his interest in them rather than with his interest in Jesus Christ; but those who are devoted to the work of the ministry are, in a special manner, concerned to disentangle themselves from all the affairs of this life, that they may give themselves wholly to that work which requires the whole man

James and John left their father: it is not said what became of him; their mother Salome was a constant follower of Christ; no doubt, their father Zebedee was a believer, but the call to follow Christ fastened on the young ones. Youth is the learning age, and the labouring age. The priests ministered in the prime of their life.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people (verse 23).

Henry says:

Observe, 1. What Christ preached—the gospel of the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven, that is, of grace and glory, is emphatically the kingdom, the kingdom that was now to come; that kingdom which shall survive, as it doth surpass, all the kingdoms of the earth. The gospel is the charter of that kingdom, containing the King’s coronation oath, by which he has graciously obliged himself to pardon, protect, and save the subjects of that kingdom; it contains also their oath of allegiance, by which they oblige themselves to observe his statutes and seek his honour; this is the gospel of the kingdom; this Christ was himself the Preacher of, that our faith in it might be confirmed. 2. Where he preached—in the synagogues; not there only, but there chiefly, because those were the places of concourse, where wisdom was to lift up her voice (Prov 1 21); because they were places of concourse for religious worship, and there, it was to be hoped, the minds of the people would be prepared to receive the gospel; and there the scriptures of the Old Testament were read, the exposition of which would easily introduce the gospel of the kingdom. 3. What pains he took in preaching; He went about all Galilee, teaching. He might have issued out a proclamation to summon all to come to him; but, to show his humility, and the condescensions of his grace, he goes to them; for he waits to be gracious, and comes to seek and save. Josephus says, There were above two hundred cities and towns in Galilee, and all, or most of them, Christ visited. He went about doing good. Never was there such an itinerant preacher, such an indefatigable one, as Christ was; he went from town to town, to beseech poor sinners to be reconciled to God. This is an example to ministers, to lay themselves out to do good, and to be instant, and constant, in season, and out of season, to preach the word.

II. What a powerful physician Christ was; he went about not only teaching, but healing, and both with his word, that he might magnify that above all his name. He sent his word, and healed them. Now observe,

1. What diseases he cured—all without exception. He healed all manner of sickness, and all manner of disease. There are diseases which are called the reproach of physicians, being obstinate to all the methods they can prescribe; but even those were the glory of this Physician, for he healed them all, however inveterate. His word was the true panpharmacon—all-heal.

Three general words are here used to intimate this; he healed every sickness, noson, as blindness, lameness, fever, dropsy; every disease, or languishing, malakian, as fluxes and consumptions; and all torments, basanous, as gout, stone, convulsions, and such like torturing distempers; whether the disease was acute or chronical; whether it was a racking or a wasting disease; none was too bad, none too hard, for Christ to heal with a word’s speaking.

Three particular diseases are specified; the palsy, which is the greatest weakness of the body; lunacy, which is the greatest malady of the mind, and possession of the Devil, which is the greatest misery and calamity of both, yet Christ healed all: for he is the sovereign Physician both of soul and body, and has command of all diseases.

May all reading this have a blessed Sunday.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany is January 15, 2023.

Readings for Year A can be found here.

The Gospel reading is as follows (emphases mine):

John 1:29-42

1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

1:30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’

1:31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

1:32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.

1:33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’

1:34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

1:35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,

1:36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

1:37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

1:38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”

1:39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

1:40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.

1:41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).

1:42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

The events in today’s reading took place after the Baptism of the Lord, the reading from Matthew 3:13-17 that we had last week.

John the Baptist referred to this in verses 32 and 33, stating that the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) rested upon Jesus after He was baptised, after which came a voice from Heaven (Matthew 3:16-17):

3:16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

3:17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

After His baptism Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, during which time He was tempted by the devil. Then He returned twice to see John.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

As soon as ever Christ was baptized he was immediately hurried into the wilderness, to be tempted; and there he was forty days. During his absence John had continued to bear testimony to him, and to tell the people of him; but now at last he sees Jesus coming to him, returning from the wilderness of temptation. As soon as that conflict was over Christ immediately returned to John, who was preaching and baptizing Now here are two testimonies borne by John to Christ, but those two agree in one.

Henry explains that Jesus was tempted for our sakes:

Now Christ was tempted for example and encouragement to us; and this teaches us, 1. That the hardships of a tempted state should engage us to keep close to ordinances; to go into the sanctuary of God, Ps 73 17. Our combats with Satan should oblige us to keep close to the communion of saints: two are better than one. 2. That the honours of a victorious state must not set us above ordinances. Christ had triumphed over Satan, and been attended by angels, and yet, after all, he returns to the place where John was preaching and baptizing. As long as we are on this side heaven, whatever extraordinary visits of divine grace we may have here at any time, we must still keep close to the ordinary means of grace and comfort, and walk with God in them.

In the preceding passage — John 1:19-28 — John the Baptist told the Jewish leaders that he is not the Messiah. These are the final verses from that section:

24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

26 “I baptize with[e] water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

That Bethany, incidentally, is not the town where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived but another place, a desolate one, by the same name.

John MacArthur says:

Not the Bethany on the eastside of Jerusalem there, but another Bethany. We don’t know where exactly it was; out beyond the Jordan River into the wilderness.

By the end of John 1, John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus as Messiah three times, as MacArthur explains:

On day one he says, “He is here.” On day two he says, “Look at Him.” And on day three he says, “Follow Him.” And that would be the message that any preacher would give regarding Christ. He is here, look at Him, see the revelation of who He is and follow Him. And that’s the nature of John’s ministry. So that gives you the overview—three days, three messages.

And interestingly enough, the three messages are given to three groups. On day one it is a hostile delegation from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leading religious council. On day two it is the mass of people that are there. And on day three it is some of John’s own disciples. So three days, three messages to three different groups.

The day after the Sanhedrin questioned John the Baptist, he proclaimed of Jesus, who was approaching him, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ (verse 29).

MacArthur tells us that a public proclamation of the Messiah as ‘the Lamb of God’ would have shocked some in the crowd. Surely, their Messiah would not be a sacrificial Lamb but a powerful king:

That’s not what they expected to hear. Why would the Messiah be a Lamb? Why would…at best, a lamb is impotent, weak, helpless, stupid, dependent, even dirty.

What do you mean the Messiah’s a Lamb? This is shocking, shocking. They would have expected him to say, “Behold your King. Behold the triumphant One. Behold the majestic One. Behold the exalted One. Behold the Ruler. Behold the Anointed One.” But he says, “Behold the lamb of God.” At best, as I said, a lamb is impotent and weak. At worst, a lamb is dead. And lambs were sacrificed all the time. All through the centuries Israel knew about a sacrificial lamb—going all the way back to Abraham and Isaac and God providing a sacrifice for Abraham so he didn’t have to kill his own son. And then back to the Exodus and the Passover Lamb and every Passover after that, and every morning and every evening, there was a morning sacrifice, an evening sacrifice, and lambs were slain as sin offerings over and over and over and over, day after day after day, century after century after century. And they also knew, Isaiah 53, that He was led as a lamb to slaughter. The One who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, and the One upon whom the chastening for our peace fell. They knew all of that. They knew about sacrifice. But they didn’t know how it fit because they never saw themselves as a people needing a sacrifice.

In other words, they assumed that the combination of their righteousness and their obedience in offering an animal was enough. But those animals couldn’t take away sin; they could only point to the one sacrifice that would take away sin, that had not yet come until Christ. And because they didn’t recognize their sinfulness, they didn’t recognize they were under judgment, under wrath, needed a sacrifice, and that their Messiah was to be that sacrifice that Isaiah 53 was talking about—their Messiah—they had no concept they needed or that the Messiah would be a lamb. And so Johns says, “Behold the Lamb of God”—the lamb that God has chosen to be the sacrifice.

Every family chose its lamb. Every father chose a lamb. This is the lamb that God has chosen. He’s come to deal with sin at last, to be wounded for our transgressions. He became sin for us who knew no sin. He offered Himself as a sacrifice on the cross. He bore our sins in His own body. God made Him who knew no sin, sin for us. All those New Testament explanations. The Jews wanted a prophet. The Jews wanted a king. They got a lamb. They wanted a leader; they wanted a monarch. They got a substitute. They wanted an exalted messiah. They received rather a humiliated sacrifice. They wanted one who could kill all their enemies, and they got One whom their enemies killed. But then again, they could never have a king until they had a lamb. And that’s the two comings. There could never be a coming in glory to reign until there’s a coming in humiliation to die.

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” What that means is that for the whole world there is only one who can take away sin. For the whole world, there’s only one who can take away sin, and that’s this One who will die as the sacrificial lamb God accepts.

John the Baptist says that Jesus is the man of whom he said ranks ahead of him because He was there before him (verse 30).

Henry points out the word used for ‘man’ in that verse:

John calls Christ a man; after me comes a man—aner, a strong man: like the man, the branch, or the man of God’s right hand.

MacArthur says:

John then adds what he said back in verses 15 and 27, “This is He on behalf of whom I said, after me comes a man who’s higher rank than I, for He existed before me.” And again he says, “Get your attention off me. He came after me in terms of beginning His ministry, but He existed before me. He was born after I was born, and yet He existed before me. Get your eyes on this eternal One. Get your eyes on this exalted One who is of higher rank than I am, the One you don’t know.”

John the Baptist said that he did not know Jesus personally but that he baptised with water so that Jesus might be revealed to Israel (verse 31).

Last week, I quoted MacArthur surmising that the two cousins — John the Baptist and Jesus — might have met once or twice when they were toddlers and perhaps played together during those encounters. Here, John the Gospel writer records John the Baptist as saying he never met Jesus.

In this sermon, MacArthur says that John the Baptist might have known Jesus but would not have recognised Him as the Messiah in their childhood:

You say, “Well weren’t Elizabeth and Mary related?” They were. Elizabeth and Mary were related. “Didn’t Elizabeth and Mary talk?” Sure. Mary knew that she had conceived Jesus as the Son of God without a father, humanly speaking. Elizabeth knew of the miracle of her birth. They were together when both of them were pregnant. They knew; didn’t they talk about that through the years? Wouldn’t have those women told their sons that they were who they were? And wouldn’t John know that Jesus was the Son of God?

Well, the answer is, “Yeah, he would know that because his mother would have told him, and Mary may have told him. And it certainly was known in the family” …

So here John is just admitting that I didn’t recognize Him in the full sense; oida is the Greek verb. I didn’t recognize Him in the full, deep sense. But so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water … Up to that point he’s saying, “I knew Him, but there was no way for me to be certain that this is the Messiah, which by the way, is a footnote, is a clear declaration that Jesus’ humanity was real humanity. There was nothing about seeing the man Jesus that would tell you He was a heavenly person. I didn’t recognize Him. “But He who sent me to baptize in water,” that’s God, “said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’”

Henry says that the two not knowing each other would have worked perfectly for John the Baptist’s prophecy. It was proof that there was no collusion between the two:

He protests against any confederacy or combination with this Jesus: And I knew him not. Though there was some relation between them (Elisabeth was cousin to the virgin Mary), yet there was no acquaintance at all between them; John had no personal knowledge of Jesus till he saw him come to his baptism … There was no correspondence, no interview between them, that the matter might appear to be wholly carried on by the direction and disposal of Heaven, and not by any design or concert of the persons themselves. And as he hereby disowns all collusion, so also all partiality and sinister regard in it; he could not be supposed to favour him as a friend, for there was no friendship or familiarity between them.

As I explained above, John the Baptist testified that the Holy Spirit rested upon Jesus after His baptism (verse 32), signifying that He would baptise in the Holy Spirit Himself (verse 33) and that Jesus is the Son of God (verse 34).

MacArthur sums up those verses as follows:

So on day two we could say this: John says to the crowd, “Look at Him, the Lamb of God who is the Son of God.” That’s John’s ministry. The Lamb of God who is the Son of God. He knows it. He’s heard the voice from heaven of the Father. He’s seen the Spirit coming down and again, as I said, later on he had some doubts, but they were affirmed with the testimony coming back from his disciples when they asked. “Now I know John’s testimony, this is the Son of God.” So you have the finest, the most believable, credible, trustworthy voice in Israel affirming that this is the Lamb of God who is the Son of God.

John tells us that, the next day — the third time Jesus appeared — John the Baptist was standing with two of his disciples (verse 35) and exclaimed that Jesus is the Lamb of God (verse 36). Upon hearing that, the two disciples followed Jesus (verse 37).

This was a private exchange between John the Baptist and his two disciples.

Henry says that John the Baptist was willing — and wanted — to let two of his own followers go to follow Jesus. John the Baptist was also consistent in his message, as God’s ministers for Christ should be:

1. He took every opportunity that offered itself to lead people to Christ: John stood looking upon Jesus as he walked. It should seem, John was now retired from the multitude, and was in close conversation with two of his disciples. Note, Ministers should not only in their public preaching, but in their private converse, witness to Christ, and serve his interests. He saw Jesus walking at some distance, yet did not go to him himself, because he would shun every thing that might give the least colour to suspect a combination. He was looking upon Jesusemblepsas; he looked stedfastly, and fixed his eyes upon him. Those that would lead others to Christ must be diligent and frequent in the contemplation of him themselves. John had seen Christ before, but now looked upon him, 1 John 1 1. 2. He repeated the same testimony which he had given to Christ the day before, though he could have delivered some other great truth concerning him; but thus he would show that he was uniform and constant in his testimony, and consistent with himself. His doctrine was the same in private that it was in public, as Paul’s was, Acts 20 20, 21. It is good to have that repeated which we have heard, Phil 3 1. The doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice for the taking away of the sin of the world ought especially to be insisted upon by all good ministers: Christ, the Lamb of God, Christ and him crucified. 3. He intended this especially for his two disciples that stood with him; he was willing to turn them over to Christ, for to this end he bore witness to Christ in their hearing that they might leave all to follow him, even that they might leave him. He did not reckon that he lost those disciples who went over from him to Christ, any more than the schoolmaster reckons that scholar lost whom he sends to the university. John gathered disciples, not for himself, but for Christ to prepare them for the Lord, Luke 1 17. So far was he from being jealous of Christ’s growing interest, that there was nothing he was more desirous of. Humble generous souls will give others their due praise without fear of diminishing themselves by it. What we have of reputation, as well as of other things, will not be the less for our giving every body his own.

So, who were the two disciples from verse 37 who followed Jesus?

Henry says Andrew, based on verses 40 and 41, and says the unidentified disciple could have been John the Gospel writer or Thomas:

Andrew and another with him were the two that John Baptist had directed to Christ, v. 37. Who the other was we are not told; some think that it was Thomas, comparing ch. 21 2; others that it was John himself, the penman of this gospel, whose manner it is industriously to conceal his name, ch. 13 23, and 20 3.

MacArthur is certain that John is the unidentified follower, because he never referred to himself by name. Later on in his Gospel, he wrote of himself as the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’:

According to verse 40, one of them is Andrew; one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus was Andrew. Who’s the other one? Well, the writer of the gospel of John is always reluctant to name one of them. Who is it? Himself.

Jesus sensed they were following Him, so He turned and asked them what they were seeking; they responded, addressing him as Rabbi — teacher — and asking Him where He was staying (verse 38).

Henry says they asked that because they did not wish to impose on our Lord’s time, although they did intend to follow Him. He also explains the root of ‘rabbi’:

Their modest enquiry concerning the place of his abode: Rabbi, where dwellest thou? (1.) In calling him Rabbi, they intimated that their design in coming to him was to be taught by him; rabbi signifies a master, a teaching master; the Jews called their doctors, or learned men, rabbies. The word comes from rab, multus or magnus, a rabbi, a great man, and one that, as we say, has much in him. Never was there such a rabbi as our Lord Jesus, such a great one, in whom were hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. These came to Christ to be his scholars, so must all those that apply themselves to him. John had told them that he was the Lamb of God; now this Lamb is worthy to take the book and open the seals as a rabbi, Rev 5 9. And, unless we give up ourselves to be ruled and taught by him, he will not take away our sins. (2.) In asking where he dwelt, they intimate a desire to be better acquainted with him. Christ was a stranger in this country, so that they meant where was his inn where he lodged; for there they would attend him at some seasonable time, when he should appoint, to receive instruction from him; they would not press rudely upon him, when it was not proper. Civility and good manners well become those who follow Christ. And, besides, they hoped to have more from him than they could have in a short conference now by the way. They resolved to make a business, not a by-business of conversing with Christ. Those that have had some communion with Christ cannot but desire, [1.] A further communion with him; they follow on to know more of him. [2.] A fixed communion with him; where they may sit down at his feet, and abide by his instructions. It is not enough to take a turn with Christ now and then, but we must lodge with him.

MacArthur picks up on our Lord’s response to the two men:

“How do You know me?” Which is to say, “I don’t know You.” And in that little, small area of Galilee, thirty years Jesus has lived there and they don’t even know who He is, which speaks to the fact that He had done nothing to draw attention to Himself. And He begins now to gather His followers, and John the Baptist fades out of the picture now and makes one small appearance in chapter 3. But now the story turns to Christ and He takes center stage.

He invited the two men, saying ‘Come and see’; they followed and stayed with him that day, by which time it was four o’clock in the afternoon (verse 39).

MacArthur says that they probably stayed the night with Jesus:

So they came and saw where He was staying. We don’t know where that was, out in the desert somewhere, no doubt a humble place where Jesus was staying with some persons who had provided for Him a room or a bed. We know nothing more than that. “And they stayed with Him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.” By Jewish reckoning, which begins at 6:00 a.m., that would be four o’clock in the afternoon when they finally go to where Jesus is. So they’re going to stay with Him, stay the day, stay the night. I can imagine if I started a conversation with the Son of God, sleep would be the last thing on my agenda. This must have gone through the night.

One of the two men who immediately followed was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother (verse 40).

MacArthur says that by the time John wrote his Gospel, Peter was well known, more so than his brother:

Verse 40 simply notes that the two of them who had heard John the Baptist speak and followed him, one of them was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. Andrew will become known as “Simon Peter’s brother” because Simon Peter is casting a big shadow. And by the time John writes his gospel, which would have been in the nineties, at the end of the first century, Peter would have been well-known and there wasn’t a lot about Andrew. So Andrew would have had to spend his whole life being Simon Peter’s brother. That would be the way he would be introduced.

And yet:

if priority matters, Andrew is the first disciple called. He’s the first disciple called and you have the account of it here. Well, Andrew is called over that night to conviction that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. So he finds, first of all, his own brother Simon, which meant that he must have been around, which meant that he may have been a follower of John the Baptist as well, because, remember, they’re not in Galilee where they live, they’re down in the south, across the Jordan River, east of Jerusalem.

Andrew first found his brother Simon and told him that he and John had found the Messiah, the Anointed (verse 40).

MacArthur explains the importance of the verse:

He finds Simon and he says to him, “We have found the Messiah.” Now that [Messiah] matters a lot to John, which translated into the Greek is “Christ.” “Messiah” is a Hebrew word; “Christ” is a Greek word. It means “the Anointed One.” But this is…John’s point here; here is a first-person, eyewitness account by objective evidence that Jesus is the Messiah. Here is a reliable first-person testimony. “We have found the Messiah.” No equivocation, no hesitation, no doubt, absolute certainty–“We have found the Messiah.” The objective test of scrutiny, examining Jesus, asking Him questions, talking with Him the rest of the day through the night, and this is a joyful proclamation, joy beyond joy–“We have found the Messiah.” And he brought him to Jesus, Simon Peter. He brought him to Jesus.

That’s how the kingdom advances, isn’t it? One bringing another. And so here comes Andrew dragging Peter to Jesus.

Andrew brought Simon to Jesus who identified him as Simon son of John — or Jona — and stated that he would be called Cephas (pron. ‘KEFF-us’), meaning stone and Peter, the Greek word for stone being petros (verse 41).

We see elsewhere in the New Testament — e.g. Acts and Paul’s letters — where Peter is simply called Cephas with no reference to Simon or Peter.

Henry gives us this analysis of the three names and the honour Jesus did Simon by calling him Cephas:

Observe,

(1.) Christ called him by his name: When Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon, the son of Jona. It should seem that Peter was utterly a stranger to Christ, and if so, [1.] It was a proof of Christ’s omniscience that upon the first sight, without any enquiry, he could tell the name both of him and of his father. The Lord knows them that are his, and their whole case. However, [2.] It was an instance of his condescending grace and favour, that he did thus freely and affably call him by his name, though he was of mean extraction, and vir mullius nominis—a man of no name. It was an instance of God’s favour to Moses that he knew him by name, Exod 33 17. Some observe the signification of these names: Simonobedient, Jonaa dove. An obedient dove-like spirit qualifies us to be the disciples of Christ.

(2.) He gave him a new name: Cephas. [1.] His giving him a name intimates Christ’s favour to him. A new name denotes some great dignity, Rev 2 17; Isa 62 2. By this Christ not only wiped off the reproach of his mean and obscure parentage, but adopted him into his family as one of his own. [2.] The name which he gave him bespeaks his fidelity to Christ: Thou shalt be called Cephas (that is Hebrew for a stone), which is by interpretation Peter; so it should be rendered, as Acts 9 36. Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas; the former Hebrew, the latter Greek, for a young roe. Peter’s natural temper was stiff, and hardy, and resolute, which I take to be the principal reason why Christ called him Cephas—a stone. When Christ afterwards prayed for him, that his faith might not fail, that so he might be firm to Christ himself, and at the same time bade him strengthen his brethren, and lay out himself for the support of others, then he made him what he here called him, Cephas—a stone. Those that come to Christ must come with a fixed resolution to be firm and constant to him, like a stone, solid and stedfast; and it is by his grace that they are so. His saying, Be thou steady, makes them so.

Henry reminds us that our Lord also gave other Apostles names, honours all but without singular significance:

Now this does no more prove that Peter was the singular or only rock upon which the church is built than the calling of James and John Boanerges proves them the only sons of thunder, or the calling of Joses Barnabas proves him the only son of consolation.

However, MacArthur disagrees and thinks that Jesus singled out Peter for a special place in the Church from that moment:

Jesus looked at Peter and said, “You are Simon son of John,” or Jonah, or Jonas–a lot of ways to transliterate that–“you’re Simon, son of John.” That must have caused Peter a little bit of shock. There’s no indication that He was told that, but then He knows everything. He knows who he is. More than that, He knows who he will become. He says, “you shall be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).” “Cephas” is the Aramaic word, which was the common language they spoke. “Peter” is the Greek form of the word stone, or rock. And our Lord is predicting what Peter will become. It’s going to be a tough journey getting him there, but he will become a rock. He will become a rock. Matthew 16, Jesus looks at him and says, “You are Peter,” you are the stone. But on an even greater rock, the rock of your confession, I’ll build My church. Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God–“on that rock bed [that petra] I will build My kingdom.” But you’re a petros, you’re a stone. In fact, you’re one of the foundation stones Ephesians 2:20 talks about, of the church. The Lord says, “I not only know you, but prophetically I know what you’re going to become. You’re going to be a rock. You’re going to be solid. And he was from the day that the Spirit of God came upon him, and he stood up on the dais, if you will, on the Day of Pentecost and preached Jesus Christ and preached again. And preached through the first twelve chapters of the book of Acts in the foundation years of the church. He was the rock who proclaimed the truth on which the church was built. So Jesus must have startled Peter by knowing who he was and being able to prophesy what he would become.

In closing, sometimes unbelievers say that if Jesus really is the Son of God, the religious establishment would have fully accepted Him. However, unbelievers do not understand the point of our Lord’s ministry.

Continuing on in John 1, MacArthur points out that Jesus opposed the false religious system of the Jewish hierarchy and chose men who understood His message. They were humble nobodies. This was part of God’s plan:

True Israelites, true Jews, believing Jews knew they were sinners. John’s ministry was a ministry of repentance. His baptism was a baptism of repentance. Now remember, he is confronting a nation of self-righteous people who don’t think they need to repent and don’t think they need a Savior. That would be the dominant view. That was the view of the religious establishment. They were not looking for a lamb, or a sacrifice, or a savior, they were looking for a king. They felt they had already achieved status and acceptance with God by their religiosity and their morality. But John’s message was, you are no better than Gentiles. You are outside a relationship with God, you need to repent and you need to be baptized as an outward expression of the desire for an inward cleansing, like a Gentile who is becoming associated with Jewish religion. In other words, you’re outsiders, you need to repent or the wrath of God is going to fall on you. John preached wrath and he preached repentance, and then he pointed to Christ and said, “This is the Lamb and the sacrifice for your sins.” True Jews understood that. They knew they were sinners. They knew they needed to repent and they knew they needed a sacrifice for their sin. And perhaps these men, this small group of fishermen, even understood the full impact of Isaiah 53. There was coming one who would be wounded for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities. They would have understood the sacrificial system pointing toward a full and final sacrifice. And when John said, “Behold the Lamb of God,” that may not have registered with the populace, but it registered with those who had a true understanding of the Old Testament and a true admission of their own spiritual and sinful condition.

So here in this section, verses 38 to 51, we meet a little group of Jews who were believers in the Old Testament and had a true interpretation of the Old Testament that had truly changed their lives, represented by the words of our Lord, “Behold”–that’s a shocking realization–“a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit”–a real believer. So here is a little group of believers … –Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathanael–and John is also originally with Andrew in this. You can add James. You can throw in Thomas. And you have seven Galilean fishermen, seven Galilean fishermen who give testimony ultimately, although Thomas took him a long time till he finally said, “My Lord and my God.” They start out to be the core of the…of the disciples of Jesus, who then become the apostles of Christ, the first great preachers and missionaries of the gospel that start what is still being finished and will be until Jesus comes. It’s an amazing reality how the Lord chooses these insignificant people and He doesn’t have to scour the whole country, He doesn’t have to try to find the best guy in every city or every county. He can take four, five guys who know each other, that live in the same area, make their living the same way–catching fish–and He can turn them into world changers. He can take anybody and do that, and that’s what you see here.

You know, the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1 said, “Consider your calling, not many noble, not many mighty,” remember that? The Lord has called the base and the lowly and the nothings and the nobodies and the insignificant. And that’s how the gospel gets launched. The seed that’s planted is John the Baptist; he’s like the first testifier to Jesus. And then the next group is this group that’s completely alien to the religious establishment. There’s not a rabbi; there’s not a priest; there’s not a Sadducee; there’s not a Pharisee; there’s not a scribe–no one who is a part of the religious establishment which was apostate. No one is selected, but rather humble, rural fishermen become the first followers of Jesus–the first missionaries, the first preachers, the first witnesses–and they give an amazing testimony. In verse 41, one of them says we found the Messiah. In verse 45, another one says, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote.” And in verse 49, another one says, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” And the reason for the story here is to declare those statements. We have found the Messiah who is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, who is the Son of God and is the King of Israel. This is not their calling to be apostles; that doesn’t happen until a year and a half later. Half way through the ministry of Jesus, these men are identified as part of the twelve apostles. But at the start here, they’re just common, insignificant, uninfluential Galilean fishermen who know each other, who along with James and John all live in the same place and make their living the same way. They may well have worshiped God together in the same synagogue. Amazing. But what they launch will go, and is still going, to the ends of the earth, the ends of the earth.

The truth of the gospel spreads in every generation since the first through humble people, through the unknown, the uninfluential, the powerless, the weak and the meek. That’s how it’s always spread–person to person to person; the kingdom advances one soul at a time, one soul at a time. Sure there are preachers who preach to groups, but the primary way the kingdom moves is from one person to another, to another, to another, and that’s how it all started.

Now the challenge for them was immense, really immense. They were nobodies, absolutely nobodies, as given testimony to the fact that they were declaring Jesus to be the Messiah who Himself appeared to be a nobody, the son of Joseph from Nazareth. And everybody in Judea looked down on Galilee and the people in Galilee looked down on Nazareth. Talk about humble beginnings.

Prestige isn’t everything, and certainly isn’t when it comes to the Gospel.

Everything about Christ’s time on Earth spoke of humility: the Nativity, His exile into Egypt with Mary and Joseph, His humble upbringing, His lack of a home as an adult, His eschewing of any ostentation, all of which led to His humiliating death on the Cross as He assumed our sins in order to reconcile us to God the Father.

Jesus experienced everything that mankind continues to experience throughout history — and more. No one understands us more deeply than He. For that, we should be eternally grateful for our adoption as His own. May we converse with Him more often this year through prayer.

The First Sunday after Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, is January 8, 2023.

Readings for Year A can be found here.

The Gospel reading is as follows (emphases mine):

Matthew 3:13-17

3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.

3:14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

3:15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

3:16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

3:17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Today’s verses describe the beginning of our Lord’s ministry.

Matthew Henry’s commentary provides the context:

The fulness of time was come that Christ should enter upon his prophetical office; and he chooses to do it, not at Jerusalem (though it is probable that he went thither at the three yearly feasts, as others did), but there where John was baptizing; for to him resorted those who waited for the consolation of Israel, to whom alone he would be welcome. John the Baptist was six months older than our Saviour, and it is supposed that he began to preach and baptize about six months before Christ appeared; so long he was employed in preparing his way, in the region round about Jordan; and more was done towards it in these six months than had been done in several ages before.

Henry has a practical application for us:

Christ’s coming from Galilee to Jordan, to be baptized, teaches us not the shrink from pain and toil, that we may have an opportunity of drawing nigh to God in ordinance. We should be willing to go far, rather than come short of communion with God. Those who will find must seek.

John MacArthur says there is proof that Jesus was 30 years old at the time:

We know that Jesus began His ministry when He was 30.  We know that because Luke 3:23 tells us that. 

MacArthur reminds us that the intention of Matthew’s Gospel is to prove to the Jews, beginning with His lineage, that Jesus is the Messiah and the King of kings. This was another pivotal moment for the Apostle to record:

We come to the last paragraph in the 3rd chapter of Matthew Matthew presents the Lord Jesus Christ as King.  That’s Matthew’s particular approach.  He wants the world to know that Christ is the promised King, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the King of kings, and Lord of lords John’s major message is that Jesus is God; and in every paragraph almost in the entire gospel of John, John points up something of the deity of Christ.

Well, in almost every paragraph of Matthew, Matthew is dealing with the kingly nature of Christ, and no different as we come to the end of the third chapter, for here we find the commissioning of the King Matthew doesn’t say it in those terms, but that is precisely what occurs.  In the majesty of the moment, Matthew does manage to capture in all of its fullness.  There’s something strikingly majestic about this text.  All of the anticipation of the previous texts seems to come to fulfillment here, because, as we come to Matthew 3:13, we read the words, “Then cometh Jesus.”  And really, for the first time, the Lord Jesus appears upon the stage Up until this time it has been preparatory.  Matthew has been commenting on various elements in the beginnings of Jesus: His birth, the things surrounding His birth, His forerunner, etc.  But now, finally, Jesus steps onto the stage.  Jesus takes the place of prominence.

The anticipation that has been building since the beginning of this record is now fulfilled.  In chapter 1, verses 1 to 17, we saw the ancestry of the King In chapter 1, verses 18 to 25, we saw the arrival of the King, His birth.  In chapter 2, verses 1 to 12, we saw the adoration of the King, the worship given to Him by the magi In chapter 2, verses 13 to 23, we saw the attestation to the King That is, He is attested to be the King by the fulfillment of specific prophecy. And in chapter 3, verses 1 to 12, we saw the announcer of the King, John the Baptist And now, finally, after all of that, we come in chapter 3, verses 13 to 17 the arrival of the King If you wanna add another one, the anointing of the King.

This is, as it were, His coronation.  This is His commissioning, the beginning of His ministry.  It’s a rich and a blessed section of Scripture.  The King comes out of 30 years of seclusion, 30 years of obscurity, 30 years of being hidden, as it were, finally to manifest Himself to the world.  John the Baptist, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, has made ready the path.  The way is prepared.  The path is straight, and from the quiet seclusion of Nazareth, the Lord Jesus comes to inaugurate His work, to assume His office, and He is commissioned.  He is crowned, as it were, in a very wonderful way right here …

Now, I want us to see three aspects to the commissioning of Jesus Christ First, the baptism of the Son.  Second, the anointing of the Spirit.  Thirdly, the word of the Father, and you will notice that all the Trinity is involved – the baptism of the Son, the anointing of the Spirit, and the word of the Father This is a very important passage for instruction on the Trinity, because all of them are here synonymously, all acting at the very same time; and if you’re looking for a passage in which to find the Trinity, this is as good as any.

Thirty years of peaceful preparation, thirty years of being in Nazareth, now comes to an end.  That is all buried, and the King comes for the storm and the stress of the unique work that God has commissioned Him to do.

Matthew says that ‘then’ Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptised by him (verse 13).

MacArthur says there is no more detail on what ‘then’ denotes:

Now, you notice the verse begins with “then.”  This is very vague.  Doesn’t tell us much of anything.  We don’t know when the “then” was other than the fact that the “then” hooks us up with the time of the ministry of John the Baptist. 

Our Lord was among other people at this time. He did not request a private audience with his cousin:

… in Luke chapter 3 and verse 21, a parallel passage.  The Word of God says, “Now when all the people were being baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized.”  Now Luke then tells us that Jesus came when all the other people were coming.  This was no private audience with John.  This was no little, intimate tête-à-tête.  This was no secret commissioning.  Jesus just came along with everybody else, and we will see the absolute significance of that in a little while.

MacArthur also points out the verb ‘came’, which is ‘cometh’ in his translation:

You’ll notice that he uses the word “cometh.”  Very interesting word, paraginomai.  It is a word that has multiple meaning potential, but it is a word that is used specifically in many places to refer to making a public appearance It was a word used sometimes to speak of the arrival of a teacher, somebody who was to take a public, a significant place in public vision or the public eye.  In fact, it is the same verb used in verse 1, “In those days came John the Baptist.”  It seems to be used, then, at least in some cases, for the initiation of a public ministry. And so, in that sense, this text is saying, “Then Jesus, initiating His public ministry, came from Galilee.”  And, by the way, Mark 1:9 adds, “From Nazareth in Galilee” …

He came unto John, specifically, His cousin and His forerunner; and here it’s kind of a, like a relay race John is about to pass the baton to Christ.  This is the phasing out of the ministry of John and the beginning of the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus would have walked quite a distance:

We don’t really know exactly where on the Jordan River John was, but it could’ve been as much as a 60-mile walk for the Lord to get there; and, at this time, He’s coming alone Just beginning His ministry.  Nothing really has taken place at all.  He steps out of the obscurity of Nazareth, walks maybe as much as 60 miles, makes His public appearance, initiating His ministry.

John ‘would have prevented’ — wanted to prevent — Him from doing so, saying that he was the one to be baptised by Him, not the other way around (verse 14).

MacArthur thinks it is possible that the two cousins would have met at some point when they were children:

Now, perhaps Jesus and John knew each other.  I know they knew about each other.  I know Jesus knew about John, the forerunner, ’cause He was omniscient I know John knew about Jesus, because they were cousins You say, “Well, how does that, how does that prove that John knew about Him?”  Well, for many reasons.  Perhaps when they were babies they may have played together.  Perhaps when they were little children, they may have spent time together.  Then John went his way into the wilderness, and Jesus remained in the seclusion of Nazareth.  John staying for his lifetime in that wilderness area.  Perhaps they never met again, but I’m quite confident that John knew that Jesus was the Messiah.  There’s several things that help me to understand that.  One is that Elizabeth called Jesus Lord; and if she, John the Baptist’s mother, believed He was Lord, there’s no question in my mind that she would’ve passed that on to her son. And the very fact that he is instantly recognizing Jesus here and recognizes Him for who He is is another indication that, indeed, he knew. 

John rightly points out that he himself is human and therefore prone to sin. Therefore, the Lord should be baptising him.

John’s was a baptism of repentance, and he did not grant it to all who approached him.

MacArthur reminds us:

John’s treatment of Jesus is the very opposite of the way he treated the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  Verse 7, they came to be baptized, and “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come for baptism, he said to them, ‘O generation of vipers, who’s warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bring forth therefore fruits befitting repentance.’

Now, listen, he refused to baptize the Pharisees and the Sadducees because they weren’t repentant.  You see that?  He refused to baptize them because they were impenitent.  They were sinful.  Here, he refuses to baptize Jesus because He is sinless and has nothing to repent of. And so the whole idea makes no sense to him.  He who towered above the Pharisees and the Sadducees – who thought they towered above everybody – finds himself bowed in deepest humility before Jesus.

Jesus answered John saying, ‘Let it be so now’, in order for righteousness to be properly fulfilled; then John consented (verse 15).

MacArthur explores the verse:

It was a baptism of sinners, and John was, in effect, saying, “If You do this, You’re just saying one thing, Lord, and I don’t know how You can possibly say it when You’re sinless.”  John is saying, “If You enter my baptism, You enter it on these terms, and that’s it.”  Well, what’s the answer?

Well, let Jesus give it Himself, in verse 15.  By the way, these are the first recorded words of Jesus since He was 12 years old and spoke to His mother and told her He had to be about – What? “His Father’s business.”  This is the first time He’s said anything other than that in all of Holy Scripture since His incarnation, and they are words with royal dignity and humility.  Verse 15, “And Jesus answering said unto him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.’  Then he consented to him … 

Now, Jesus does not deny that He is a superior and John is an inferior. He does not deny that John needs also to be baptized, because John is a sinner.  He does not deny that John needs repentance.  He does not deny that He doesn’t need it; but He says, “There’s a special reason, John, and permit it to be so now.”  This is an idiom.  “I know it’s unusual, but let it go this time.  Allow it now.  Yield to Me this time.  It’s unusual, but it’s necessary.”

Why?  “For thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.”  The phrase “thus it becometh us” means “it is proper for us to do this.”  “This is okay, John.  This is right to do, even though I have no sin, and even though you’re a sinner, even though it is a baptism of sinners, it is a baptism of repentance.  We’ve gotta do it.”  And notice the “us.”  “For thus it becometh us.”  “We both have a part.  You must do this to Me, and I must have it done.”  Why?  “To fulfill all righteousness.”

Now, here’s the key.  “To fulfill all righteousness.”  Does it mean that Jesus wants to do everything that’s righteous?  Yes.  That Jesus wants to do all the righteous good deeds?  Yes.  That whatever good work there is, Jesus will do?  Yes.  Is baptism such a good work?  Yes.  Then perhaps Jesus is simply identifying with it as an act of righteousness.  It was repentant sinners who came to that water.  It was righteous men and women who came to that water; and is Jesus simply identifying with all the various acts of righteousness, all the various acts of godliness and holiness?  Well, certainly, in His life He did that.

Henry says that Jesus followed all religious precepts, and baptism was no different. Furthermore, by being baptised, He set a divine ordinance that we should follow. Baptism is a sacrament in the Church:

Our Lord Jesus looked upon it as a thing well becoming him, to fulfil all righteousness, that is (as Dr. Whitby explains it), to own every divine institution, and to show his readiness to comply with all God’s righteous precepts. Thus it becomes him to justify God, and approve his wisdom, in sending John to prepare his way by the baptism of repentance. Thus it becomes us to countenance and encourage every thing that is good, by pattern as well as precept. Christ often mentioned John and his baptism with honour, which that he might do the better, he was himself baptized. Thus Jesus began first to do, and then to teach; and his ministers must take the same method. Thus Christ filled up the righteousness of the ceremonial law, which consisted in divers washings; thus he recommended the gospel-ordinance of baptism to his church, put honour upon it, and showed what virtue he designed to put into it. It became Christ to submit to John’s washing with water, because it was a divine appointment; but it became him to oppose the Pharisees’ washing with water, because it was a human invention and imposition; and he justified his disciples in refusing to comply with it.

As for John’s consent:

The same modesty which made him at first decline the honour Christ offered him, now made him do the service Christ enjoined him. Note, No pretence of humility must make us decline our duty.

When Jesus had been baptised, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens opened to Him and He saw the Spirit of God — the Holy Spirit — descending like a dove and alighting on Him (verse 16).

Henry explains our Lord’s baptism, which was short and at the water’s edge, because He was and is without sin:

Jesus when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water. Others that were baptized staid to confess their sins (v. 6); but Christ, having no sins to confess, went up immediately out of the water; so we read it, but not right: for it is apo tou hydatosfrom the water; from the brink of the river, to which he went down to be washed with water, that is, to have his head or face washed (John 13 9); for here is no mention of the putting off, or putting on, of his clothes, which circumstance would not have omitted, if he had been baptized naked. He went up straightway, as one that entered upon his work with the utmost cheerfulness and resolution; he would lose no time. How was he straitened till it was accomplished!

MacArthur, on the other hand, thinks that Jesus had a full immersion baptism.

I agree with Henry. Jesus had no need of a full immerson baptism because of His sinless nature.

However, this is what MacArthur says:

Baptidzo – well, before we look at the word, the context helps us, and so does the concept.  Now, listen, if John the Baptist had a baptism that symbolized conversion — the word “repent” means “conversion” — if it symbolized a transformation, if it symbolized a purification, a washing of sin, it would seem to me that immersion is the only proper picture.  It isn’t just a little dribble on the top.  It’s a cleansing.  It’s a washing, so the very significance of the baptism of John points to immersion.  Further, if Jesus was using this as a symbol of His death and resurrection, that also points to – What? – immersion.  Trickling water on someone’s head does not fit the symbolism of dying, being buried, and rising again as immersion does.  Further, it says, “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water.”  Whatever kind of baptism this was, He had to go into the river to get it.  Certainly not necessary for sprinkling or pouring.

Now, I would add that verse 6 says, backing up, “They were baptized by him in the Jordan.”  “In the Jordan.”  Now John was baptizing in the Jordan River.  The word en, e-n in the Greek, is translated “in,” is used often interchangeably with the word eis, which means “into,” and I won’t take the time to show you all the parallel passages. But the two words are used interchangeably, and when they are used interchangeably for the same incident, “into” is the stronger word.  We take “in” to mean “into,” and in other accounts of the baptisms of John, we find the word “into.” And if the word “in” here is used and elsewhere “into” is used, we would take “into” as the strong word, and this word then would have the meaning of “into.”  Now, maybe you’re “out of it” listening to that.  Maybe that wasn’t too clear, but that’s the truth anyway.

And I’ll tell you something interesting.  It says in John chapter 3, verse 23, “And John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there.”  Now, there’s no reason to be concerned about where there’s the most water if you’re sprinkling.  “There was much water there” – water that could be used for immersion.  And in the 8th chapter of Acts, and verse 38, “And Philip and the eunuch went down into the water.  Both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.”

So it seems to me that the references, and, by the way, there is no reference to sprinkling anywhere in the entire New Testament.  The only word we ever have in reference to baptism is baptidzo By the way, Old Testament proselyte baptism was always immersion.  Read Leviticus 14, verses 8 and 9.  So you have the Old Testament standard of immersion.  You have the idea of “into” — the preposition used frequently in reference to it.  You have the concept that much water was there.  They went down into the river.  They came out of the river.  You have the picture of death and resurrection.  You have the idea that this is a transformation that is symbolized.  All of this seems to point to immersion. 

Henry discusses the significance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, a bird much referenced in the Bible. ‘Canticles’ in the next paragraph refers to the Song of Solomon:

He descended on him like a dove; whether it was a real, living dove, or, as was usual in visions, the representation or similitude of a dove, is uncertain. If there must be a bodily shape (Luke 3 22), it must not be that of a man, for the being seen in fashion as a man was peculiar to the second person: none therefore was more fit than the shape of one of the fowls of heaven (heaven being now opened), and of all fowl none was so significant as the dove. [1.] The Spirit of Christ is a dove-like spirit; not like a silly dove, without heart (Hos 7 11), but like an innocent dove, without gall. The Spirit descended, not in the shape of an eagle, which is, though a royal bird, yet a bird of prey, but in the shape of a dove, than which no creature is more harmless and inoffensive. Such was the Spirit of Christ: He shall not strive, nor cry; such must Christians be, harmless as doves. The dove is remarkable for her eyes; we find that both the eyes of Christ (Cant 5 12), and the eyes of the church (Cant 1 15; 4 1), are compared to doves’ eyes, for they have the same spirit. The dove mourns much (Isa 38 14). Christ wept oft; and penitent souls are compared to doves of the valleys. [2.] The dove was the only fowl that was offered in sacrifice (Lev 1 14), and Christ by the Spirit, the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God. [3.] The tidings of the decrease of Noah’s flood were brought by a dove, with an olive-leaf in her mouth; fitly therefore are the glad tidings of peace with God brought by the Spirit as a dove. It speaks God’s good will towards men; that his thoughts towards us are thoughts of good, and not evil. By the voice of the turtle[dove] heard in our land (Cant 2 12), the Chaldee paraphrase understands, the voice of the Holy Spirit. That God is in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, is a joyful message, which comes to us upon the wing, the wings of a dove.

Henry looks at the purpose of the Holy Spirit in our Lord’s ministry:

He saw the Spirit of God descended, and lighted on him. In the beginning of the old world, the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters (Gen 1 2), hovered as a bird upon the nest. So here, in the beginning of this new world, Christ, as God, needed not to receive the Holy Ghost, but it was foretold that the Spirit of the Lord should rest upon him (Isa 11 2; 61 1), and here he did so; for, [1.] He was to be a Prophet; and prophets always spoke by the Spirit of God, who came upon them. Christ was to execute the prophetic office, not by his divine nature (says Dr. Whitby), but by the … Holy Spirit. [2.] He was to be the Head of the church; and the Spirit descended upon him, by him to be derived to all believers, in his gifts, graces, and comforts. The ointment on the head ran down to the skirts; Christ received gifts for men, that he might give gifts to men.

A voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’ (verse 17).

Henry says that this was the sign that God was reconciling mankind unto Himself through His Son Jesus:

See here how God owns our Lord Jesus; This is my beloved Son. Observe, [1.] The relation he stood in to him; He is my Son. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, by eternal generation, as he was begotten of the Father before all the worlds (Col 1 15; Heb 1 3); and by supernatural conception; he was therefore called the Son of God, because he was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost (Luke 1 35); yet this is not all; he is the Son of God by special designation to the work and office of the world’s Redeemer. He was sanctified and sealed, and sent upon that errand, brought up with the Father for it (Prov 8 30), appointed to it; I will make him my First-born, Ps 89 27. [2.] The affection the Father had for him; He is my beloved Son; his dear Son, the Son of his love (Col 1 13); he has lain in his bosom from all eternity (John 1 18), had been always his delight (Prov 8 30), but particularly as Mediator, and in undertaking the work of man’s salvation, he was his beloved Son. He is my Elect, in whom my soul delights. See Isa 42 1. Because he consented to the covenant of redemption, and delighted to do that will of God, therefore the Father loved him. John 10 17; 3 35. Behold, then, behold, and wonder, what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that he should deliver up him that was the Son of his love, to suffer and die for those that were the generation of his wrath; nay, and that he therefore loved him, because he laid down his life for the sheep! Now know we that he loved us, seeing he has not withheld his Son, his only Son, his Isaac whom he loved, but gave him to be a sacrifice for our sin.

Returning to Matthew’s theme of Christ’s Kingship, MacArthur says:

His divine nature needed no special gift.  It needed no strengthening; but, you see, there were two parts that we need to understand here that were taking place in terms of His humanness.  One, He was being anointed for service; and two, He was being granted strength in His humanness.  The Spirit came to anoint Him for kingly service.

Isaiah 61:1, listen to this: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek.  He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” – etc. – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.  He has anointed me to preach.”  The Spirit of God came upon Him in His humanness to empower Him to preach, to anoint Him as the Prophet of God.  In Acts 10:38, the writer says, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit.”

You notice that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth.”  That’s His human identification.  So His humanness was anointed He was inaugurated into His kingly office.  He was empowered for ministry.  His humanness needed to be strengthened.  Do you know that?  He grew weary.  He grew thirsty.  He grew tired.  He grew hungry.  His humanness needed strengthening, so the Spirit of God descended to announce, “This is the King.  This is the Anointed,” and to strengthen Him in His humanness for His ministry

And, finally, there was one other part to His commission – the word of the Father Verse 17, “And lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'”  Now, listen, there’s one thing about a sacrifice Whenever a sacrifice is offered to God, it has to be the right one True?  Without spot, without blemish, and that is precisely what God is saying.  “This One, who identifies with sinners, this One who is to be the dove of sacrifice.  I say in Him I am well pleased.  I accept Him as the sacrifice.”  Great statement …

And so, beloved, what do we see in the commission here?  He is chosen to be a king, but His, but His throne is gonna be a cross.  He’s chosen to be a king, but He’s gonna die, a sin offering.  And so He is commissioned.  By baptism, He identifies with sinners and pictures His death.  By being anointed with the Spirit, He is empowered to minister a ministry that ultimately will make Him a sacrifice.  The dove of sacrifice.  And by the Father’s word, He is said to be the worthy sacrifice.  What an introduction.  What a beginning.  What a ministry was His.

May everyone reading this enjoy a blessed Sunday.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent is on December 18, 2022.

Readings for Year A can be found here.

The Gospel reading is as follows (emphases mine):

Matthew 1:18-25

1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,

1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

This post is long, so take a break with a cuppa and a snack.

John MacArthur explores what the Jews of our Lord’s era thought of the Messiah’s being, which isn’t too different from what many people think today:

Now the Jewish leaders believed that the promised Messiah would be the son of David.  They believed that from a human viewpoint, he would be a member of the royal lineage of David, the royal family, the royal line.  And frankly, they weren’t sure of much more than that They, for the most part, seemed to reject the idea that the Messiah would be God in human flesh, though there may be some indication that a few of them may have felt that way. 

The preponderance of the Jewish people at that time seem to have been convinced that the king they were going to gain would be of the seed of David, a human being in every sense, of royal lineage.  In fact, when Jesus claimed to be both the son of David and the Son of God, they accused him of blasphemy.  They expected him to be of the royal line of David, but apparently not to be deity in human flesh.

And I think people today are still denying that.  I think people today are willing to let Jesus be a royal seed.  They’re willing to let him be a son of David.  They’re willing to let him be even one of a kingly line, but they’re not anxious for him to be deity, God in human fleshIt’s all right to be the son of David, but not the Son of God.

MacArthur uses Hark, the Herald Angels Sing as an illustration:

… “Christ by highest heaven adored.  Christ the everlasting Lord.  Late in time, behold him come.  Offspring of the virgin’s womb.  Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see.  Hail the incarnate deity.  Pleased as man with men to dwell.  Jesus, our Immanuel.  Hark, the herald angels sing glory to the newborn king.”

Now that verse of that particular Christmas carol is a verse that is built around the theme that he is God And even though the world may sing the song, they’re not really ready to receive the reality of it

MacArthur’s sermon dates from 1978. He shares a women’s magazine survey from 1968 or a few years before then:

Redbook magazine over ten years ago took a poll of students in Protestant seminaries Fifty-six percent of the students in Protestant seminaries studying for the ministry rejected the idea of the virgin birth.  Fifty-six percent.  The legacy of that poll and those students ten years ago is modern liberalism.

The survey research center of the University of California at Berkeley polled the denominations to get their view on the virgin birth.  Sixty-nine percent of the American Baptists believed in the virgin birth.  Sixty-six percent of the Lutherans believed in the virgin birth.  Fifty-seven percent of the United Presbyterians.  Thirty-nine percent of the Episcopalians.  Thirty-four percent of the Methodists, and 21 percent of the Congregationalists believed in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

Now the church in many, many ways – is the church not evangelical, but the church liberal is not even ready to accept the deity of Jesus Christ and his virgin birth, so it seems rather obvious that the world isn’t beating a path to the door of this great concept in reality But you shouldn’t be surprised.  The apostle Paul said in Romans chapter 3 these words.  “For what if some did not believe?  Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?  God forbid.  Yeah, let God be true and every man – ” what? “ – a liar.”  So says Paul in Romans 3:3-4

antimodernism1922However, this trend started a century ago. In fact, the illustration on the left is 100 years old this year, in 2022. It shows what was going on the world at at that time with regard to Christianity. The heresy is known as modernism. Whatever could not be proven empirically was rejected.

Pope Pius X got there first in 1907 and formally declared modernism a heresy in his encyclical ‘Pascendi Dominici Gregis’. I wrote about it in 2009, and what an eye-opener his encyclical is, not only about early 20th century thought but also with regard to the world we know today. Modernism, according to Pius X, gave birth to victimhood, as none of those errant theologians liked being criticised for their heresy. This is a quote from Pius X:

Modernists express astonishment when they are reprimanded or punished.

MacArthur says that, in 1976, the late Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral said:

I could not in print or in public deny the virgin birth of Christ, but when I have something I can’t comprehend, I just don’t deal with it.

No doubt many clergy today adopt the same attitude.

Let us go to Matthew Henry’s commentary, written in the early 18th century, for these words of wisdom:

The mystery of Christ’s incarnation is to be adored, not pried into. If we know not the way of the Spirit in the formation of common persons, nor how the bones are formed in the womb of any one that is with child (Eccles 11 5), much less do we know how the blessed Jesus was formed in the womb of the blessed virgin. When David admires how he himself was made in secret, and curiously wrought (Ps 139 13-16), perhaps he speaks in the spirit of Christ’s incarnation.

MacArthur advises us not to fall into the trap of the majority of clergy:

Don’t ever base your theology on majority rule.  There may be people who deny the virgin birth.  There may be people who flagrantly and blatantly fight against the deity of Jesus Christ, but maybe even more subtle than that are the people who ignore the virgin birth.

Yes, those like Robert Schuller.

However, we cannot just ignore the virgin birth, even though we will never understand it.

MacArthur cites the head of Dallas Theological Seminary, who points out that Christ’s deity is central to Christianity:

We cannot doubt it and we cannot deny it and we cannot ignore it if we simply open our eyes and look at Matthew 1:18-25 It’s there.  Dr. Walvoord, the president of Dallas Theological Seminary, says – and I quote – “The incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ is the central fact of Christianity.  Upon it the whole superstructure of Christian theology depends.”  The whole essence of Christianity, people, is predicated on the fact that Jesus is God in human flesh.  And that is something made clear at the very birth of Christ, an essential doctrine.

You see, if Jesus had a human father, then the Bible is untrustworthy, because the Bible claims he did not And if Jesus was born simply of human parents, there is no way to describe the reason for his supernatural life.  His virgin birth, his substitutionary death, his bodily resurrection and his second coming are a package of deity You cannot isolate any one of those and accept only that one and leave the rest or vice versa, accept them all but one.

You believe all of those realities that are the manifestation of his deity or you do not.  And so we must face the question that Jesus posed to the Pharisees again.  Whose son is he?  Now Matthew gives us the human answer to whose son he is in the genealogy which we studied last week.  Humanly speaking, whose son is he?  Son of David. 

I wrote an exegesis about Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in 2015. Those verses are very important for Jews, even today. Many have been converted by reading that and the rest of his Gospel.

MacArthur explains why Matthew wrote about the virgin birth early on in his Gospel:

Jesus was the God-man, 100 percent deity, 100 percent humanity.  That is the message of chapter 1 of Matthew And so he splits his chapter into two parts, dealing with the human and then the divine.

Now let me add a footnote that you might think about.  Matthew may be writing in an apologetic manner.  And by that I don’t mean he was apologizing for what he was saying.  Apologetics comes from a Greek word, apologia which means a speech in defense of.  And it may be that Matthew is actually writing here not simply just to lay out the facts, but that he is really writing to counter a certain thing that was going on He is really writing to counter a certain slander. 

For example, we know that at the time of Jesus Christ, there were some who accused him of being an illegitimate son, a child born out of wedlock, the son of a Roman soldier who cohabitated with Mary, and Mary was an adulteress, and thus Jesus was an illegitimate child.  Those kind of slanders were in existence at that time.  And it may have been that Matthew was not just pedantically recording the facts of the birth of Christ, but that he was countering a slander that existed about his dear Lord.

And this text sets such a slander right.  The virgin birth is essential enough for the Apostles’ Creed to speak of Jesus as “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.”  That’s always been a cardinal fact of Christianity.  And it’s always been one that is attacked by false doctrine

Matthew tells us that the birth of Jesus the Messiah — note how the Apostle names him as such — took place in a certain way, when His mother Mary was engaged to Joseph but before they lived together, she was with child from the Holy Spirit (verse 18).

Now there were myths about other virgin births at the time, Alexander the Great being one of them. It is not unusual for atheists to bring this into the conversation.

MacArthur says:

Now there wasn’t really a lot of talk about the Messiah being virgin born.  I mean, they didn’t really see that, even though it was sort of veiled in the Old Testament and even though there was Isaiah 7:14 and there were other passages that maybe kind of leaned that way But they didn’t really see that.  But there was evidence, and I want you to note this in your mind.  There was Old Testament evidence that the Messiah would be God.

.. And it wasn’t until the New Testament that the full mystery of godliness, the God was manifest in the flesh was really unfolded.  It became crystal clear in the New Testament. 

Naturally, then, if it is clear in the New Testament that Jesus is God in human flesh, then what will be the number one point of attack of every false system?  The deity of Jesus Christ.  Invariably, they all do it

Analysing the verse, MacArthur points out that Matthew:

is simply giving you the genealogy of Jesus from the divine side 1:1 “The book of the genealogy, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  Over here, now the genealogy of Jesus Christ was in this way and this is the divine side he was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God.  See, just two sides of the same genealogy The genealogy of Jesus Christ was in this manner. 

MacArthur tells us a bit about Mary:

I wish we knew more about her.  We don’t know much about Mary.  Let me see if I can kind of put some things together for you.  It may be – this is a real possibility – let me just see if I can find that verse for you.  John 19:25, I think it is.  You don’t need to look it up.  “There stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.”

Now we don’t know much about Mary, but apparently Mary had a sister, the wife of Cleophas, who also was named Mary, which is not necessarily uncommon So we know at least one person in the immediate family.  And it is also true according to Luke 1:36, listen to this, “And, behold, – ” it says “ – thy cousin Elisabeth, has also conceived a son – ” and who was her son?  John the Baptist. 

So we know at least a sister, and it’s very likely that that reference there is referring to a regular blood sister in John 19.  And we know of her cousin Elisabeth.  So we know a little bit about her family.  And if we can take the genealogy of Luke and assign it to Mary’s family, her father’s name was Heli, H-E-L-I.  She and Elisabeth being related, thus Jesus and John the Baptist were also related. 

Now we don’t know much about Mary other than that.  Her early life was spent in Nazareth.  She was probably poor, probably hard working, and no doubt a very righteous lady.  I think if you want a good character study of Mary, you can just simply listen to her.  In Luke 1, you have a parallel account of the annunciation and all that. 

And, of course, when Mary found out what the Spirit of God had done and what was going to happen, you know, it said, “The Spirit of God will come upon you and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you” and that “that which is born of you shall be called the Son of God.”  Luke 1:35.  You’re going to have a child and it’s going to be the Son of God, deity.

And verse 38 tells us about Mary’s character because of her response.  “And Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.’ ”  Now what do you learn about Mary right there?  She submitted to what?  God’s what?  God’s Word.  Verse 45.  And Mary – it says, “And blessed is she that believed:”  Blessed is she that believed.  Elisabeth and Mary having a conversation, we learn a second thing about Mary. 

Not only did she submit to the Word of God, but she was a woman of what?  Faith.  She believed God.  

The Church of England still uses The Magnificat — Mary’s words to Elizabeth — as a canticle in Morning and Evening Prayer. The canticle is taken from Luke 1:46-55, and is a great exposition of faith and humility.

Of her words, MacArthur says:

Oh, what a godly lady.  There was no quizzical thing in her mind.  There was no doubt.  There was no misgiving.  There was no pondering.  There was no wondering.  There was no questioning.  There was an instant submission and an instant belief that this, in fact, was God’s truth.  What a righteous lady.

She was so plugged into God.  She was a true Old Testament saint that she could sense when God was speaking, and she went on to praise God for what he was going to do.  It might be interesting for you to know it The word “Mary”is Miriam

The story of Mary’s mother, St Anne, might give us an insight into her family history. Although this is a legend, it would make sense:

Ancient belief, attested to by a sermon of John of Damascus, was that Anne married once. In the Late Middle Ages, legend held that Anne was married three times: first to Joachim, then to Clopas and finally to a man named Solomas and that each marriage produced one daughter: Mary, mother of Jesus, Mary of Clopas, and Mary Salome, respectively.[citation needed] The sister of Saint Anne was Sobe, mother of Elizabeth.

If we know little about Mary, we know even less about Joseph.

Here our commentators differ.

Henry says:

Some think that Joseph was now a widower, and that those who are called the brethren of Christ (ch. 13 55), were Joseph’s children by a former wife. This is the conjecture of many of the ancients. Joseph was just man, she a virtuous woman.

That is why he is sometimes depicted as looking much older than Mary.

MacArthur, on the other hand, thinks the two were the same age:

He was a true Old Testament saint.  So here are two Old Testament saints.  They were very young.  Most Bible scholars feel they were in their teen years, since marriages in that day and age occurred to ladies as young as – would you believe – 12?  And betrothals occurred when girls were 12 and 13.   And so they were most likely older teenagers, because we sense that because of the tremendous maturity of Mary.

Jewish couples undertook two marriage contracts, in keeping with the Old Testament. The betrothal was not courtship but rather a contract that the two people observed for six months to a year. It was platonic. If successful, the marriage contract proceeded from that. It involved a dowry, which the future groom ‘paid’ his future father-in-law. I put the words in quotes because it normally involved livestock.

MacArthur has more:

The Old Testament and the rabbis, as well, in the rabbinical writings, distinguished two stages in marriage – in Hebrew marriage.  ... The kiddushin and the chupah.  Now the kiddushin was the betrothal

Deuteronomy 20:7.  What it was, was two families would draw up a contract – or two individuals could do it – draw up a contract that promised marriage.  Okay?  It was – now watch this – a binding contract.  And if at any time during that contract of betrothal period you violated that marriage vow, you had to be divorced in an official sense You were constituted legally married, though there were no physical relationships whatever. 

It was a normally 12 month period and it was a period of protection for the would-be husband and wife so that there would be a period in which to prove a fidelity So that if the girl was pregnant, that would become very manifest in that period If anybody was going to be unfaithful or there were going to be problems, there was a period of time in which that could be worked out. 

And by the way, during that period, there was not a lot of social contact at all They still maintained a certain distance.  It was simply a promise that was made, a contract that was made.  Now, at the end of the period, it could go as long as 12 months, sometimes 6 months, the chupah took place That was the wedding And weddings lasted approximately seven days

One of the reasons that when you gave your daughter away to be married you wanted something in payment for her was, of course, to take care of some of your own needs.  So there was what was called the mohar That was the price.  And the price of the girl would vary, depending on the girl, you know.  It could be anything from a couple dozen sheep to a lame chicken, I suppose.  But anyway, there may have been some girls that just you could say you could have them for nothing.  I’ll throw in a couple sheep, you know. 

But basically, basically there was what was called the mohar.  And this is the price that was paid.  And it was paid at the point of betrothal.  It was usually, according to Genesis 34, it was goods or services And it had several purposes.  Number one was to compensate the father because the father would have to expend a great amount of money in order to marry his daughter off.  It was also to act as life insurance for the wife. 

And normally the Jewish father would hold it in trust and if the husband died, he would give it back to the daughter And it also was kind of a divorce insurance because the husband, of course, would have to give it up, and, you know, it usually was a rather formidable price and he had no hope of ever realizing it back again unless he stayed married to the girl and received it back by inheritance after the death of the father So it tended to keep the marriage together Plus you couldn’t run around and marry too many people or you’d be destitute, giving all your stuff away. 

So the betrothal period, then, was the period prior to the chupah or the wedding itself, when the marriage was consummated physically and all.  The betrothal period was a period of testing, a period of probation to ensure the bride’s virginity and the fidelity of the husband and the wife, and so forth.  But, they used the term “husband and wife” because it was as good as valid, just not consummated. 

Returning to our reading, Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace for being pregnant, so he decided to dismiss her — end the kiddushin — quietly (verse 19).

Making a public disgrace out of Mary would have involved a public stoning to death, something he clearly did not want for her or to have to witness:

He knew the quality of her character.  He knew the righteous standard by which she lived.  He knew her stature before God.  He knew Mary.  This was totally out of character.  It made no sense at all.  And he knew Deuteronomy chapter 22 well enough to know that back then when a woman became pregnant with a child outside of wedlock, the punishment was what?  Death.  Death. 

In Deuteronomy chapter 22 there are many verses.  Let me just remind you of some that speak to this issue.  Deuteronomy 22:13, “If a man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, and give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, ‘I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a virgin:’”

Well, if he finds that to be true, “Then they shall – ” verse 21 “ – bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she has wrought folly in Israel, to play the harlot.”  And of course there are other things involved in between.  There’s – this whole chapter deals with various kinds of harlotry. 

Verse 22, “If a man be found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: put away the evil.  If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto a husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then bring them unto the gate and stone them.”

So it covered every element of this.  Death would have been what happened then, and Joseph was literally rocked to the very core of his heart.  He loved Mary.  And Mary had, you see, absolutely no way under the sun to protect her reputation ... So a blessed Spirit of God protected it for her right here in the pages of the Word of God.  Let there be no reproach on Mary ever.

Just as Joseph made his decision, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, calling him ‘Joseph, son of David’ and telling him not to be afraid because the child was conceived from the Holy Spirit (verse 20).

Henry says that the dream was no accident, because we are more receptive to godly solutions when our minds are calm:

This angel appeared to Joseph in a dream when he was asleep, as God sometimes spoke unto the fathers. When we are most quiet and composed we are in the best frame to receive the notices of the divine will. The Spirit moves on the calm waters. This dream, no doubt, carried its own evidence along with it that it was of God, and not the production of a vain fancy.

MacArthur says that our Lord’s incarnation cancelled the curse from Genesis:

Nothing new for the Holy Spirit in this sense.  His was always a work of creation, wasn’t it?  In Genesis 1, he brooded over the emptiness and the nothingness and he created everything.  In Acts chapter 1, he moved upon the situation of people gathered in the upper room and he created the church.  And why shouldn’t he be able to create the marvelous miracle of the virgin birth?

Don’t be shocked.  Don’t be shocked.  We should have expected it.  Really.  Go all the way back to the first book of the Bible, the 3rd chapter of Genesis.  Genesis 3:15.  Now we’re way back, folks.  And when the Lord God is speaking here to Satan.  Satan has done what he did in causing Adam and Eve to fall.  And God says to him, “I will put – ” Genesis 3:15.  “I will put enmity – ” or animosity, or antagonism, or hatred.  It’s the word for enemy, really.  “I will put – ” make an enemy “ – between thee and the woman, – ” Now watch “ – between thy seed and – ” what? “ – her seed; he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”

He said, “Look, Satan.  Some day there’s going to come a woman and that woman is going to have a seed, and you may bruise his heel – ” and he did at calvary – but he’ll do what? “He’ll bruise your head.”  And you notice that it says that Jesus would be the seed of the woman, her seed.  Only one time in the history of the world did a woman ever have a seed.  Seed is in the man.  But once in the woman.  And that’s what Genesis 3:15 said.

And Paul says in Galatians 4:4, he said, “In the fulness of the time – ” Christ came.  Watch this “ – made of a woman, made under the law.”  Made of a woman .. Now listen to me.  Now get this.  If Jesus had had no human parents, then he wouldn’t have been man at all.  He wouldn’t have been partaker of our flesh.  On the other hand, if Jesus had two human parents, he could not have avoided the contamination of humanity.

So he had to be the child of man and yet the child of God, and that’s exactly what he was.  He was born of a sinner, and yet he was sinless because he was equally born of God.  Deity canceled humanity’s curse.  The water of the nature of God drowned the fire of the nature of man.  So the virgin birth conceived.

The angel told Joseph that Mary would bear a son and that he was to name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (verse 21).

MacArthur tells us:

Now I want you to know something about verse 21.  She shall bring forth a son.”  You notice he didn’t say, “And Joseph, you will have a son.  To thee will be born a son.”  She brought forth that child, “and his name shall be Jesus, for he shall save his people from your sins.”

You know, the Bible is very careful about never naming Joseph as the father of Jesus I don’t know if you know that.  For example, in Matthew 2:13, it says, “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt.”  Always the mother.  Why didn’t he say, “Take your child and your wife”?  Why “the child and the mother”?  Always Joseph is removed from the actual fatherhood.  2:20 of Matthew, “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel:”  It’s always the child and his mother, never Joseph as the father.  Virgin born.

And his name, Jeshua, Jehoshua, Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.  Beloved, that’s the reason he came, isn’t it?  And that’s why the book of Acts in 4:12 says, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”  Only the name of Jesus, the one God-man.  It is God alone who saves … 

Matthew tells us that the angel spoke those words to Joseph to fulfill the Lord’s words as spoken by the prophet (verse 22).

Isaiah said that the woman shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Immanuel, meaning ‘God is with us’ (verse 23).

MacArthur looks at Isaiah’s prophecy, which he addressed to King Ahaz:

Suffice it to say that the word almah in Isaiah 7:14 is best translated “virgin,” best translated “virgin.”  And the people, the critics, the slanderers can come and go and try to erase it but they cannot erase the commentary of Matthew on it who used the word parthenos, which meant “virgin.”  Matthew knew what it meant, even if they don’t.  And it’s a little tough to get around the virgin birth when it says over and over that the lady Mary had no relationships with a man.  Why do they want to argue about almah in Isaiah 7:14 Why don’t they listen to God’s commentary on it? 

The setting of Isaiah’s prophecy is very simple.  King Ahaz was terrified that the kingdom of Judah might be destroyed by Syria and Israel.  Ahaz is sitting down in the bottom of the southern kingdom and he’s worried about up north here’s Israel and over here is Syria.  And he’s afraid they’re going to come down and they’re going to wipe out the kingly line.  So he’s really afraid they’ll lose the kingly line. 

So God comes along and says, “Let me give you a promise.  Nothing’s going to happen to the kingly line.  Nothing is going to take away the kingly line.  Here’s a sign.  A virgin shall be with child and that child will be Immanuel, God with us.”  He says, “You look down the corridors of history and there will be a virgin born child and he will guarantee you that David’s line will never be broken.”

And Jesus came into the world as the fulfillment of that prophecy given by Isaiah to Ahaz, to show that God will keep his promise and the throne of David will never be broken forever and ever and ever and ever.  So the virgin birth is clarified.

By the way, they shall call his name Immanuel, which being interpreted is what?  God with us.  El, the last two letters of that word, are the name for God, El.  El Shaddai, El Elyon, El Maqoddeshkim, all those names for God, El.  Immanu means “with us.”  God with us. 

Now, you say, “But they never called him Immanuel.”  No.  That is not his title as far as a name is concerned.  That is a description of who he is.  And many times the title is not necessarily the name.  He was called lots of things, as well he is called Immanuel.  And so the virgin birth is clarified, and then it’s connected to history past.

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel commanded, taking Mary as his wife (verse 24).

He had no marital relations with her until she had born a son; Joseph named Him Jesus (verse 25).

Henry gives us this analysis, beginning with the history of the name Joshua:

[1.] … Jesus is the same name with Joshua, the termination only being changed, for the sake of conforming it to the Greek. Joshua is called Jesus (Acts 7 45; Heb 4 8), from the Seventy. There were two of that name under the Old Testament, who were both illustrious types of Christ, Joshua who was Israel’s captain at their first settlement in Canaan, and Joshua who was their high priest at their second settlement after the captivity, Zech 6 11, 12. Christ is our Joshua; both the Captain of our salvation, and the High Priest of our profession, and, in both, our Savioura Joshua who comes in the stead of Moses, and does that for us which the law could not do, in that it was weak. Joshua had been called Hosea, but Moses prefixed the first syllable of the name Jehovah, and so made it Jehoshua (Num 13 16), to intimate that the Messiah, who was to bear that name, should be Jehovah; he is therefore able to save to the uttermost, neither is there salvation in any other.

[2.] In the reason of that name: For he shall save his people from their sins; not the nation of the Jews only (he came to his own, and they received him not), but all who were given him by the Father’s choice, and all who had given themselves to him by their own. He is a king who protects his subjects, and, as the judges of Israel of old, works salvation for them. Note, those whom Christ saves he saves from their sins; from the guilt of sin by the merit of his death, from the dominion of sin by the Spirit of his grace. In saving them from sin, he saves them from wrath and the curse, and all misery here and hereafter. Christ came to save his people, not in their sins, but from their sins; to purchase for them, not a liberty to sin, but a liberty from sins, to redeem them from all iniquity (Tit 2 14); and so to redeem them from among men (Rev 14 4) to himself, who is separate from sinners. So that those who leave their sins, and give up themselves to Christ as his people, are interested in the Saviour, and the great salvation which he has wrought out, Rom 11 26.

In this way, Matthew explains Jesus’s divinity, having explained His humanity, to show that He is the Messiah:

This evangelist, writing among the Jews, more frequently observes this than any other of the evangelists. Here the Old Testament prophecies had their accomplishment in our Lord Jesus, by which it appears that this was he that should come, and we are to look for no other; for this was he to whom all the prophets bore witness.

MacArthur concludes:

At the start of his life, the Jews said Jesus was the son of a man who seduced Mary.  At the end of his life, they said the disciples stole his body and faked the resurrection.  And Matthew begins with the answer to the first slander and ends his Gospel with the answer to the last slander and spends the rest of the middle of it fighting all the other slanders against the dear Lord Jesus Christ.

He was none other than God in human flesh.  And Matthew tells us he came to dwell with the sick, to heal them.  He came to dwell with the demon possessed, to liberate them, with the poor in spirit to bless them, with the care ridden, to free them from care, with the lepers, to cleanse them, with the diseased, to cure them, with the hungry, to feed them, with the handicapped, to restore them, but most of all, he says that he came to dwell with the lost in order that he might seek and what?  Save them.

Immanuel, God with us, infinitely rich became poor, assumed our human nature, entered our sin-polluted atmosphere without ever being tainted by it, took our guilt, bore our griefs, carried our sorrows, was wounded with our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, went to heaven to prepare a place for us, sent his Spirit to dwell in our hearts, right now makes intercession for us, and will some day come to take us to be with him.  No wonder the apostle Paul said, “Through his poverty, we are made – ” what? “ – rich.” 

May all reading this have a blessed Sunday.

advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauThe Third Sunday of Advent is on December 11, 2022.

Readings for Year A can be found here. That post explains briefly why this particular day is also called Gaudete Sunday. The Latin word gaudete means ‘rejoice’, as the traditional Introit called believers to do on that day. Centuries ago, Advent began on St Martin’s Day, November 11. In those days, Christians prayed and fasted until Christmas. Gaudete Sunday was a brief reprieve in those long, dark, cold weeks prior to Christmas.

This post has a longer explanation of Gaudete Sunday. Some priests still wear rose coloured robes instead of purple ones on this day, symbolic of the joy to come on Christmas:

Gaudete Sunday: readings for the Third Sunday of Advent — Year B

The Gospel reading is as follows, emphases mine:

Matthew 11:2-11

11:2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples

11:3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

11:4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:

11:5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

11:6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

11:7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?

11:8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.

11:9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

11:10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

11:11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

This is another long post. Although Matthew’s text appears straightforward, there is much to analyse.

For those who missed it, last week’s Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12) shows the power of John the Baptist’s message of repentance and judgement for those who do not turn from sin. The Jewish hierarchy believed they did not need to repent because, as they were descendants of Abraham, they were automatically saved. However, John told them the raw truth, which resonated with the people but not with them:

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

John MacArthur explains how Matthew structured his Gospel, aimed at the Jewish people. Indeed, through the ages, Jews have converted by reading his account of Jesus.

Having been a tax collector, Matthew would have been used to thinking in a practical way. He was used to working with numbers and keeping precise accounts. His Gospel reflected that practicality.

MacArthur says:

Now, for ten chapters, Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has told us who Jesus Christ is. He has presented Him as the Son of God, God incarnate, the King, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of Israel, and the Savior of the world. Over and over again, he has reiterated that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the living Lord, the Son of God. And in the effort that Matthew has made to do this, he has tapped every effective witness to the claims of Christ. It’s as if he is an attorney, drawing witnesses into a courtroom who can give testimony to the claims that Christ made.

And if you look at the ten chapters in that way, you can see that they are really a series of testimonies to the deity of Jesus Christ. For example, in chapter 1, we begin with the testimony of history as we see the genealogy and ancestry that points to Christ as Messiah. Then, we see the testimony of the virgin birth, as the text tells us He was uniquely conceived by the Holy Spirit without a human father.

Then there is the testimony of fulfilled prophecy in chapter 2, as Christ fulfills the Old Testament predictions in detail. Then in chapter 3 is the testimony of the forerunner. John the Baptist; a prophet of God, a man filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, says, “This is the Messiah.” Then in chapter 3 is the testimony of God the Father, who at the baptism of Christ said, “This is My beloved Son.” Then in chapter 4, we have the testimony of power as Jesus Himself defeats the arch-enemy of God, Satan.

Then in chapters 5, 6 and 7, is the testimony of His words. The truthfulness, the power, and the authority of what He said verifying His claim. Then, in chapters 8-9, the testimony of His works: healing, casting out demons, raising the dead, forgiving sin, all testifying of His deity. And, finally, in chapter 10the testimony of His disciples. They were so convinced that He was the Christ that they were willing to pay the dearest price of loyalty to Him, death itself.

So Matthew has laid out all of this tremendous evidence. All of these have been called, as it were, into the courtroom to testify that Jesus is the Christ. Now, as he approaches chapters 11 and 12, he has a new purpose in mind. Based upon all of this testimony, what is the reaction of those who have heard and seen? Matthew deals with that in chapters 11 and 12. In fact, he lists for us the various kinds of reactions to the claims of Christ. And through giving us brief narrative events in 11 and 12, he gives us categories of response to Jesus Christ.

And these chapters are filled with very common reactions to these claims of Christ, which were true then and are true today as much as they were then. For example, in the first 15 verses of chapter 11 is the response of doubt. From verse 16 through 19 of chapter 11, the response of criticism. From verse 20 to 24 of chapter 11, the response of indifference.

And then, going to chapter 12, the first 21 verses deal with the response of rejection; verses 22 and 23, the response of amazement; verse 24 through 37, the response of blasphemy and verses 38 through 45, the response of fascination. Now, those are all the negative responses: doubt, criticism, indifference, amazement, rejection, blasphemy, and fascination. And each of them, in a sense, is a – a kind of a unique response all its own, although there’s some overlapping as well.

But you’ll notice that I said nothing about the last section of chapter 11 and the last section of chapter 12, because both of those deal with positive responses, the response of faith, the right response. So that by the time you have covered these two chapters, you have run the gamut of possible reactions to the claims of Christ and you’ve crystallized the categories. They’re very helpful, because as you’ll find out as we move through these two chapters, we’ll be able to see the varying responses that are just as true today as they were then, and understand, perhaps a little better, where people are coming from when they react to Jesus Christ.

We know that John the Baptist’s closest disciples have been following Jesus in Matthew 9:14-15:

14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”

15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

Our Lord’s response means that no one treats a wedding feast like a funeral. There will be a time to mourn and fast, which is when the bridegroom — Christ — is taken from His friends.

In Matthew 10, Jesus sent His Apostles out to preach, teach and heal. That chapter is a hard-hitting one. Jesus tells them what will happen not only to them but also to the people they convert, if not then, in future. Selected verses follow:

10 Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[a] drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.[b] 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

32 “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.

37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

While they were out in their first stage of ministry, Jesus went out to preach in the towns of Galilee, the places where the Apostles had lived. Judas, not being from Galilee, was the only exception.

Matthew 11:1 says:

11 After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.[a]

I wrote about that verse in 2015 in my Forbidden Bible Verses series.

Matthew Henry says that the Apostles probably went to Judea:

They went abroad, no doubt; probably into Judea (for in Galilee the gospel had been mostly preached hitherto), publishing the doctrine of Christ, and working miracles in his name …

This brings us to today’s reading. We discover that John the Baptist, who was in prison at the time, sent his disciples (verse 2) to enquire of Jesus whether He was the one John spoke of or was there another to come (verse 3).

Henry explores the possibilities for John’s question — his inability to see Christ’s ministry for himself, the possibility of doubt if he had expected our Lord to raise the Kingdom of Israel, his perplexity at why his cousin did not visit him in prison as well as the urge to shore up his own disciples’ belief that Jesus was the Messiah:

Now, (1.) Some think that John sent this question for his own satisfaction. It is true he had borne a noble testimony to Christ; he had declared him to be the Son of God (John 1:34), the Lamb of God (John 1:29), and he that should baptize with the Holy Ghost (John 1:33; John 1:33), and sent of God (John 3:34), which were great things. But he desired to be further and more fully assured, that he was the Messiah that had been so long promised and expected. Note, In matters relating to Christ and our salvation by him, it is good to be sure. Christ appeared not in that external pomp and power in which it was expected he should appear; his own disciples stumbled at this, and perhaps John did so; Christ saw something of this at the bottom of this enquiry, when he said, blessed is he who shall not be offended in me. Note, It is hard, even for good men, to bear up against vulgar errors. (2.) John’s doubt might arise from his own present circumstances. He was a prisoner, and might be tempted to think, if Jesus be indeed the Messiah, whence is it that I, his friend and forerunner, am brought into this trouble, and am left to be so long in it, and he never looks after me, never visits me, nor sends to me, enquires not after me, does nothing either to sweeten my imprisonment or hasten my enlargement? Doubtless there was a good reason why our Lord Jesus did not go to John in prison, lest there should seem to have been a compact between them: but John construed it into a neglect, and it was perhaps a shock to his faith in Christ. Note, [1.] Where there is true faith, yet there may be a mixture of unbelief. The best are not always alike strong. [2.] Troubles for Christ, especially when they continue long unrelieved, are such trials of faith as sometimes prove too hard to be borne up against. [3.] The remaining unbelief of good men may sometimes, in an hour of temptation, strike at the root, and call in question the most fundamental truths which were thought to be well settled. Will the Lord cast off for ever? But we will hope that John’s faith did not fail in this matter, only he desired to have it strengthened and confirmed. Note, The best saints have need of the best helps they can get for the strengthening of their faith, and the arming of themselves against temptations to infidelity. Abraham believed, and yet desired a sign (Genesis 15:6; Genesis 15:8), so did Gideon, Judges 6:36. But, (3.) Others think that John sent his disciples to Christ with this question, not so much for his own satisfaction as for theirs. Observe, Though he was a prisoner they adhered to him, attended on him, and were ready to receive instructions from him; they loved him, and would not leave him … John was all along industrious to turn over his disciples to Christ, as from the grammar-school to the academy. Perhaps he foresaw his death approaching, and therefore would bring his disciples to be better acquainted with Christ, under whose guardianship he must leave them. Note, Ministers’ business is to direct every body to Christ. And those who would know the certainty of the doctrine of Christ, must apply themselves to him, who is come to give an understanding. They who would grow in grace must be inquisitive.

Recall that life in prison must have been unbearable for John. He was used to living in the wilderness and sleeping in the open air. At this point, he was holed up within four walls with little light, no fresh air and no means of escape.

MacArthur reminds us of why John was in prison and how this would have fed his doubt:

Difficult circumstances tend to make us doubt. Humanly speaking, the career of John the Baptist had ended in disaster. You see John was this fiery, dramatic, dynamic, confrontive, bold, courageous man who preached exactly what needed to be preached to whom it needed to be said when it needed to be said and never had any fear. Bold, powerful, aggressive. When he saw sin, he rebuked it, and rebuked it in the person he saw it in. Well, that resulted in his being imprisoned. I mean, you’ve got to be careful who you rebuke.

And Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, had paid a visit to his brother in Rome. And when Herod went to see his brother, he took a liking to his brother’s wife, so he seduced her. And when he returned home, he proceeded to divorce his own wife and then steal his brother’s wife, whom he had seduced, and take her as his new wife. And John the Baptist heard about that. And do you know what he did? He did not write an anonymous article. You know what he did? He went in front of public view, in the face of Herod Antipas, and told him he was a rotten, vile sinner who was an adulterer and gave him the whole line right to his face, which didn’t go over real big with Herod, who proceeded immediately to throw him in prison, and would have killed him, except he was afraid of the people, because the people thought he was a prophet.

MacArthur describes the prison:

Five miles east of the northern tip of the Dead Sea, fifteen miles south was an old, Herodian palace that had been turned into a fortress. The name of it was Machaerus. In the bottom of it was a pit, a dark, stifling, stuffy, hot dungeon in the middle of that bleak desert. That’s where he put John. Eighteen months John had been in the limelight, a free spirit in the wilderness, preaching, teaching, and proclaiming. And the whole country was coming to him and he was in the middle of the action, and the crowds were there and the hurrahs were there and the excitement was there. And now, for over one year, he’s been in the blackness of a stifling pit without any fresh air, in a place that in modern times is called Kiryat Mukawir.

MacArthur cites the Scottish Presbyterian theologian William Barclay (1907-1978), author of a best-selling commentary on the New Testament. Barclay gives us a sense of what John had to endure:

In Carlisle Castle, there’s a little cell. Once long ago, they put a border chieftain in that cell and left him for years. In that cell, there is one little window, which is placed too high for a man to look out of when he is standing on the floor. On the ledge of the window in the stone, there are two depressions worn away. They are the marks of the hands of that border chieftain, the places where, day after day, he lifted himself up by his hands to look out on the green dales across which he would never again ride. John must have been just like that. And there’s nothing to wonder at and still less to criticize in the fact that questions began to form themselves in John’s mind.

MacArthur describes John’s dedication to God and to Jesus. John had taken a life-long Nazarite vow:

… he was a true saint. He was a prophet of God. He was a great, holy, faithful, selfless, loyal prophet. He had done exactly what God told him to do, and he had done it well. He had announced the glorious coming of the Messiah, who would make all things right and set up His Kingdom. He was even a close relative to the Lord. He had been filled with the Spirit since the time he was in his mother’s womb. He had taken the Nazarite vow, the highest level of spiritual commitment possible.

There were only three men in the Bible who had taken life-long Nazarite vows — Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist:

To John it was all the way. I mean, John’s commitment was a consuming commitment. In fact, according to Luke 1:15, it said “He would drink neither wine nor strong drink.” And that meant he took a Nazarite vow. And the Nazarite vow meant you’d drink neither wine nor strong drink, which immediately eliminates you from all the fancy banquets and all the nice little things that you might attend. It also was part of the Nazarite vow to allow your hair to grow without cutting your hair, never putting a razor to your head which didn’t exactly keep you up with the current society trend and hairdos.

In other words, you were saying, “I do not care about what I look like. I do not care about indulging myself in those delicacies of life. I am given to a cause.” There were many people who took a Nazarite vow for a few weeks or a few months. There were only less than a handful who took that vow for life; Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist. He restricted himself even above the priests. The priests could only have to restrict himself from wine and strong drink while he was functioning as a priest, according to Leviticus chapter 10. But John did it for life. I mean, he just took the highest level, that’s all. He was committed to self-denial. And it wasn’t that he was denying himself to gain some kind of penance, that’s foolish.

Jesus responded by telling John’s disciples to tell him all they have heard and seen (verse 4): the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, the dead living and the poor hearing the Good News (verse 5).

Henry points out that those who hear also believe:

Faith, though confirmed by seeing, comes by hearing.

Henry says of our Lord’s miracles, of which John’s disciples were to testify:

Miracles are therefore the broad seal of heaven, and the doctrine they are affixed to must be of God, for his power will never contradict his truth; nor can it be imagined that he should set his seal to a lie; however lying wonders may be vouched for in proof of false doctrines, true miracles evince a divine commission; such Christ’s were, and they leave no room to doubt that he was sent of God, and that his doctrine was his that sent him. [2.] As the accomplishment of a divine prediction. It was foretold (Isaiah 35:5; Isaiah 35:6), that our God should come, and that then the eyes of the blind should be opened. Now if the works of Christ agree with the words of the prophet, as it is plain they do, then no doubt but this is our God whom we have waited for, who shall come with a recompence; this is he who is so much wanted.

Henry also says that Christ’s focus was on the poor and the humble, rather than kings or princes:

Tell him, [1.] That the poor preach the gospel; so some read it. It proves Christ’s divine mission, that those whom he employed in founding his kingdom were poor men, destitute of all secular advantages, who, therefore, could never have carried their point, if they had not been carried on by a divine power. [2.] That the poor have the gospel preached to them. Christ’s auditory is made up of such as the scribes and Pharisees despised, and looked upon with contempt, and the rabbies would not instruct, because they were notable to pay them. The Old-Testament prophets were sent mostly to kings and princes, but Christ preached to the congregations of the poor. It was foretold that the poor of the flock should wait upon him, Zechariah 11:11. Note, Christ’s gracious condescensions and compassions to the poor, are an evidence that it was he that should bring to the world the tender mercies of our God. It was foretold that the Son of David should be the poor man’s King, Psalms 72:2; Psalms 72:4; Psalms 72:12; Psalms 72:13. Or we may understand it, not so much of the poor of the world, as the poor in spirit, and so that scripture is fulfilled, Isaiah 61:1, He hath anointed me to preach glad tidings to the meek. Note, It is a proof of Christ’s divine mission that his doctrine is gospel indeed; good news to those who are truly humbled in sorrow for their sins, and truly humble in the denial of self; to them it is accommodated, for whom God always declared he had mercy in store. [3.] That the poor receive the gospel, and are wrought upon by it, they are evangelized, they receive and entertain the gospel, are leavened by it, and delivered into it as into a mould. Note, The wonderful efficacy of the gospel is a proof of its divine original. The poor are wrought upon by it. The prophets complained of the poor, that they knew not the way of the Lord, Jeremiah 5:4. They could do no good upon them; but the gospel of Christ made its way into their untutored minds.

Perhaps because of this focus on the poor, Jesus told John’s disciples that those who take no offence at Him — in His humility — are blessed (verse 6).

MacArthur interprets the verse this way, surmising that, somewhere in the back of his mind, John expected Jesus to overturn Roman rule:

He’s saying, “John, if you think I don’t care about the people who are hurting, take a look at the kind of people I touch,” see? “I care. And this, John, is only a preview of coming attractions in the Kingdom.” That’s what He’s saying, “I do care. Can’t you see that by the people I touch, by the people I reach out to?”

And by the way, John’s circumstances never got any better. They got worse, he got his head chopped off. Doubt comes from difficult circumstances, but that only gives us an opportunity to exercise faith. And faith, when it is exercised, gets stronger. And so, He sends that little rebuke in verse 6 and says, “Now, John, if you want to be blessed, don’t doubt. Don’t let anything lure you into the trap of doubt, not even difficult circumstances. I do care. Can’t you see that by the people I’ve touched? And someday, you’ll be delivered. Maybe not in this world, but in the next.”

Second thing that causes doubt is worldly influences, worldly influences. You’ll notice it says in verse 2 that John had heard about the works of Christ, and this confused him. You know why? Because the works of Christ – listen to me – the things Christ was doing did not parallel what the people thought the Messiah should do. Are you ready for that one? You see, the people all thought that when the Messiah came, He would first knock off the Romans, right? Wipe out all the Romans, get them out here, give Israel back her land. Secondly, free food, instant welfare state.

That’s why, in John 6, when He fed the multitude on the side of the hill, they tried to make Him a king in the same chapter – health, wealth, and instant happiness, bliss. All the right – all the wrongs are made right, everything would be as it ought to be immediately. You see, that was the – the existing expectation, and doubt is caused – caused by worldly influence. John had become a victim of the thinking of his day. Isn’t it supposed to be this way? … I mean, it isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. And he had become victimized by the thinking of the people around him.

That, to me, is further proof that Jesus never came to save mankind from itself but to save souls for God’s kingdom.

MacArthur says that, other than physical and spiritual healing, Jesus left no transformation in the temporal world:

I mean, is Jesus supposed to be walking around, meek and lowly, nothing much going on that changed the environment? The wrongs are still wrong, the injustices are still there, the sin is everywhere.

By the way, this is very clearly a problem with the disciples. And the disciples were forever fighting doubts about Jesus because they had these current expectations of the Messiah, and Jesus didn’t live up to them. That’s why, even in Acts 1, they’re saying to Him, “Is this the time You’re going to bring the Kingdom?” And He says to them for the umpteenth time, in effect, “You still are asking the same dumb question. It’s not for you to know.” And that’s the reason, even after all of those years of being with them, He says to them in John 14, “Have I been so long with you and you still do not know who I am?”

This is the problem today. Unbelievers expect Jesus to fit their plan of temporal transformation or universal salvation. It won’t happen:

Now, we face the same causes for doubt today. We doubt because we’re perplexed by the plan of God. And I think the world imposes that on us. Have you ever heard this question? “If God is a God of love, why is the world so messed up?” You ever hear that one? “If Christ loves everyone so much, how come children die and people starve and people get disease, and there’s war and death? And if your God is such a God of love, why doesn’t He make things right in this world? Why is there so much injustice? If your God is so loving and your Christ is so loving, how come he’s going to send all those people to Hell?” You ever heard that one? Sure.

They say, “We’ll tell you what kind of Christ we want. If yours fits, we’ll believe.” And you see, we cannot become victimized by that, can we, or we’ll begin to doubt. Well, you say, “I don’t know. Why doesn’t God do something? I may not say what – hey. If there’s a God, how come there so many false religions? I mean, if He wants everyone to love Him, and He’s so powerful, why doesn’t He wipe out the false religions and we’ll all believe?” And when you start letting the world dictate to you what God’s going to be and what God’s going to do, and what Christ is going to be and what He’s going to do, you’re going to look at the Bible and you’re going to wonder, and you’re going to be perplexed.

The world does not know God; the world does not know God’s plan; the world does not know Christ; they do not understand who He is. “The natural man understandeth not the things of God.” And if you begin to let the world force you to think that Christ must be who they say He must be, then you’re going to start doubting. And again, the solution is to go to Him. And what do you find when you go? He says this. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached.”

What do you mean by that? I mean, “Look. Can’t you see I’m the one who will make things right? I am reaching out to the poor, I am reversing disease, I am reversing death. Can’t you see it?” It’s limited, however, because of the unbelief and sin of the world. Can’t you see that I am the one who is going to make it right? I have the power to make it right. I have the power to reverse the curse? And someday He will, won’t He, in his Kingdom? These are previews of coming attractions, a taste of what He will do in the future

You say, “How does this relate to me?” Do you know why a lot of people doubt? Not only because of negative circumstances and worldly influences, but a lot of people doubt because they just don’t understand God’s revelation. You’ve got to know the facts. He says, “Go tell John the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached.”

In other words, “Give him the revelation, give him the manifestation. Tell him what I’ve done.” I would – I would promise to you that your doubt is erased as you daily expose yourself to the revelation of God. Let God speak through His Word. That spells the end of doubt.

As John’s disciples left, Jesus turned His attention to the crowd, asking them who they went out into the wilderness to see; John was not blown about like a reed in the wind (verse 7).

Jesus asked them that because He knew that they would think, ‘Hmm, if John’s doubting, perhaps we should, too’.

Jesus wanted them to know that John was divinely on the right track in prophesying Him.

MacArthur explains:

They’re thinking, well, John, I mean, he’s doubting. He’s not as hot as we thought he was. I mean, can we believe him? I mean, he’s the one who said, Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, he is the one who announced the Messiah but now he’s doubting. Can we believe him? Is he a vacillating person? And so, the Lord says, well, when you went out into the wilderness, did you go out there to see a reed shaken with the wind? What does He mean by this? Well, what is this saying? What are they asking or what is the Lord asking?

Well, He wants to – to remind them of the greatness of John, and He does it by pointing to their own attitude and their own experience with John. He doesn’t want them to think of John as a vacillating kind of weak person with no ability to make up his mind. He wants them to know how great John really is. So look what He says, the first statement. “What went ye out into the wilderness to see?” Why did you leave Galilee and go all the way out to the desert around the Dead Sea? Why would you make such a long, hard journey? What was it that attracted you to that man? Why were you so curious? Why was he so magnetic? What was it about him that drew you out? “Was it because he was a reed shaken in the wind?” Was it simply because he was a vacillating, weak character, blowing back and forth with every new wave that came along?

What is the obvious answer? No. Because if they wanted people like that they could have found them in the temple. They were all over the place. If they wanted weak, vacillating, ordinary reeds that blew around with every wind, they could have found them all over their religious system. They certainly didn’t need to go all the way out to the desert to find one. I might point out that those reeds that are spoken of here were very common reeds. They would grow along the bank of the Jordan River and they were frequently growing in other places around water. They were by the thousands everywhere along the Jordan. And so, they were common ordinary things.

And the Lord is saying did you go out there because he was just a common ordinary garden variety guy, blown around like everybody else with no strength and no conviction? The reed blowing back and forth symbolizes a man who yields to popular opinion, a man who is blown about by ideas and pressures, a man who can be bought, a man who vacillates on what he believes, a man who plays to the audience, a man who says what he thinks people want to hear, a man who veers from side to side, a man who does not have the courage or the boldness to be a man of conviction.

It refers to the spineless. And what He’s saying is, if you wanted to find some spineless people there are plenty of them right where you were. You didn’t come out here because he was spineless. You didn’t come out here because he was weak. The whole land was filled with people like that. As John Bunyan points out in Pilgrim’s Progress, “Mr. Pliable does not go to prison to be martyred for the truth.”

Jesus pressed on with questions, asking them if they went out to see someone in soft robes, the type that people in palaces wear (verse 8).

MacArthur gives us insight on this verse:

Verse 8, “What went ye out to see?” Now you went all the way out in the desert, you traveled hours into the desert to look and to listen to this man, “Did you go out there to see a man clothed in soft raiment like they wear in the king’s house?” Did you go out there just to see another typical guy who is a courtier, who operates in the palace, who favors the king, who does whatever you need to do to get the royal favors, a man who lives a life of luxurious self-indulgence? Did you go out there to see a guy who plays to the court, who seeks the favors because he wants to pad his seat? Hardly! Hardly.

And by the way, you might be interested in knowing, I did a little reading on the background of that statement. Found that in the early days of Herod the Great, many of the scribes who were attracted to Herod and wanted to seek favor from Herod took off their usual plain dress, which was the mark of a scribe, and they donned the ornate, luxurious robes of Herod’s court. They sold out. But John the Baptist was no self-seeker. He was no part of the system at all. He lived in the wilderness. His cause was not comfort. I’m sure there were many times when he wished he had it.

His cause was not self-indulgence. His cause was not to see how easy it could be on him, and if he could just hang around long enough to fall into the gravy like so many people who are hoping that every day their ship will come in. He was not interested in the ease of the world. He was not interested in gaining favor from people above him who could pad his seat. He stood apart, unstained by the system. He was above it. He was a man so consumed by a greater cause in his own mind that he couldn’t be attracted to the system.

Jesus wanted to make sure that the crowd were in no doubt that John the Baptist was a holy man, asking the crowd if they had ventured out to see a prophet. He said that John was ‘more than a prophet’ (verse 9).

He was more than a prophet because he was the last one before Christ and he heralded Christ, as I discussed in last week’s post.

MacArthur says:

Yes, they went out to see a prophet. But far more than a prophet, the very herald of the Messiah. He was a prophet and they saw him that way. Matthew 21:26: “All men perceived that John the Baptist was a prophet,” a forth teller, a speaker. And when it came to his ability to speak he was without equal. And there were some great prophets. Starting with Moses who was the first prophet, all the way to John who was the last prophet, he is the – he’s the summum bonum. He is it. He’s the valedictorian of the prophets.

I don’t know just exactly what it would be like to have listened to him, but he was the most dynamic, articulate, confrontive, powerful spokesman God ever had to do the supreme prophetic task, the last prophet who would announce that the Messiah not was coming, but was here.

To impress John’s greatness upon the crowd, Jesus cited the Old Testament — Malachi 3:1, which prophesied John (verse 10):

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

MacArthur points out:

He is a fulfillment of prophecy. And listen to this. He not only predicted the Messiah, he actually baptized the Messiah. So he is not just one who tells, he is one who does. He touched the living Christ.

Jesus ended by emphasising John’s greatness even more — ‘Truly, I tell you’ — that he was the greatest of those born of women, yet, in spite of that, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (verse 11).

Jesus meant that John, even in his holiness and exalted position amongst prophets, would never witness the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. Others — such as the Apostles — would be with Jesus for the duration of His ministry and see Him in His glorified body post-Resurrection. Furthermore, the least in the kingdom of heaven would be greater than John because they were already united with God forever.

Henry offers this analysis:

Yet this high encomium of John has a surprising limitation, notwithstanding, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. [1.] In the kingdom of glory. John was a great and good man, but he was yet in a state of infirmity and imperfection, and therefore came short of glorified saints, and the spirits of just men made perfect. Note, First, There are degrees of glory in heaven, some that are less than others there; though every vessel is alike full, all are not alike large and capacious. Secondly, The least saint in heaven is greater, and knows more, and loves more, and does more in praising God, and receives more from him, than the greatest in this world. The saints on earth are excellent ones (Psalms 16:3), but those in heaven are much more excellent; the best in this world are lower than the angels (Psalms 8:5), the least there are equal with the angels, which should make us long for that blessed state, where the weak shall be as David, Zechariah 12:8. [2.] By the kingdom of heaven here, is rather to be understood the kingdom of grace, the gospel dispensation in the perfection of its power and purity; and ho mikroteros–he that is less in that is greater than John. Some understand it of Christ himself, who was younger than John, and, in the opinion of some, less than John, who always spoke diminishingly of himself; I am a worm, and no man, yet greater than John; so it agrees with what John the Baptist said (John 1:15), He that cometh after me is preferred before me. But it is rather to be understood of the apostles and ministers of the New Testament, the evangelical prophets; and the comparison between them and John is not with respect to their personal sanctity, but to their office; John preached Christ coming, but they preached Christ not only come, but crucified and glorified. John came to the dawning of the gospel-day, and therein excelled the foregoing prophets, but he was taken off before the noon of that day, before the rending of the veil, before Christ’s death and resurrection, and the pouring out of the Spirit; so that the least of the apostles and evangelists, having greater discoveries made to them, and being employed in a greater embassy, is greater than John. John did no miracles; the apostles wrought many. The ground of this preference is laid in the preference of the New-Testament dispensation to that of the Old Testament. Ministers of the New Testament therefore excel, because their ministration does so, 2 Corinthians 3:6, c. John was a maximum quod sic–the greatest of his order he went to the utmost that the dispensation he was under would allow; but minimum maximi est majus maximo minimi–the least of the highest order is superior to the first of the lowest; a dwarf upon a mountain sees further than a giant in the valley. Note, All the true greatness of men is derived from, and denominated by, the gracious manifestation of Christ to them. The best men are no better than he is pleased to make them. What reason have we to be thankful that our lot is cast in the days of the kingdom of heaven, under such advantages of light and love! And the greater the advantages, the greater will the account be, if we receive the grace of God in vain.

The next four verses are not in the Lectionary. More’s the pity, because Jesus was talking about the eager force — ‘violence’ — with which believers wanted to enter into the kingdom of heaven:

12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence,[d] and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

I wrote about them in my Forbidden Bible Verses series here.

In closing, to better understand John the Baptist, here is a quote from William Penn, Pennsylvania’s founder, whom MacArthur quoted in his sermon. No matter what day and age we live in — and today is a highly difficult one — the truth is the truth, forever:

William Penn said, “Right is right even if everyone is against it and wrong is wrong even if everyone is for it.” That’s simple but true. He was a man of great conviction. He was so great because he faced his weakness and overcame it and because he was strong in his conviction and nobody could intimidate him. He knew what was right and he would do it.

May everyone reading this enjoy a blessed Sunday.

advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauThe Second Sunday of Advent is on December 4, 2022.

Readings for Year A can be found here.

The Gospel reading is as follows (emphases mine):

Matthew 3:1-12

3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

3:3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,

3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

This is a long post, so grab yourself a cuppa and a snack.

To set the background for John the Baptist, it had been 400 years since God had sent the Jews a prophet.

Malachi was the last. This is Malachi 4, with which the Old Testament ends:

Judgment and Covenant Renewal

[a]“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming (verse 1) repentance, for the kingdom of heaven was near (verse 2).

Matthew Henry’s commentary points out that both John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus were of humble families and led unremarkable childhoods, yet figured mightily in God’s plan:

Glorious things were spoken both of John and Jesus, at and before their births, which would have given occasion to expect some extraordinary appearances of a divine presence and power with them when they were very young; but it is quite otherwise. Except Christ’s disputing with the doctors at twelve years old, nothing appears remarkable concerning either of them, till they were about thirty years old. Nothing is recorded of their childhood and youth, but the greatest part of their life is tempos, adelonwrapt up in darkness and obscurity: these children differ little in outward appearance from other children, as the heir, while he is under age, differs nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all. And this was to show, 1. That even when God is acting as the God of Israel, the Saviour, yet verily he is a God that hideth himself (Isa 45 15). The Lord is in this place and I knew it not, Gen 28 16. Our beloved stands behind the wall long before he looks forth at the windows, Cant 2 9. 2. That our faith must principally have an eye to Christ in his office and undertaking, for there is the display of his power; but in his person is the hiding of his power. All this while, Christ was god-man; yet we are not told what he said or did, till he appeared as a prophet; and then, Hear ye him. 3. That young men, though well qualified, should not be forward to put forth themselves in public service, but be humble, and modest, and self-diffident, swift to hear, and slow to speak.

Matthew says nothing of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, which is largely related by St. Luke, but finds him at full age, as if dropt from the clouds to preach in the wilderness. For above three hundred years the church had been without prophets; those lights had been long put out, that he might be the more desired, who was to be the great prophet. After Malachi there was no prophet, nor any pretender to prophecy, till John the Baptist, to whom therefore the prophet Malachi points more directly than any of the Old Testament prophets had done (Mal 3 1); I send my messenger.

Henry describes this wilderness, sometimes called a desert, of Judea, which has biblical significance:

It was not an uninhabited desert, but a part of the country not so thickly peopled, nor so much enclosed into fields and vineyards, as other parts were; it was such a wilderness as had six cities and their villages in it, which are named, Josh 15 61, 62. In these cities and villages John preached, for thereabouts he had hitherto lived, being born hard by, in Hebron; the scenes of his action began there, where he had long spent his time in contemplation; and even when he showed himself to Israel, he showed how well he loved retirement, as far as would consist with his business. The word of the Lord found John here in a wilderness. Note, No place is so remote as to shut us out from the visits of divine grace; nay, commonly the sweetest intercourse the saints have with Heaven, is when they are withdrawn furthest from the noise of this world. It was in this wilderness of Judah that David penned the 63d Psalm, which speaks so much of the sweet communion he then had with God, Hos 2 14. In a wilderness the law was given; and as the Old Testament, so the New Testament Israel was first found in the desert land, and there God led him about and instructed him, Deut 32 10. John Baptist was a priest of the order of Aaron, yet we find him preaching in a wilderness, and never officiating in the temple; but Christ, who was not a son of Aaron, is yet often found in the temple, and sitting there as one having authority; so it was foretold, Mal 3 1. The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple; not the messenger that was to prepare his way. This intimated that the priesthood of Christ was to thrust out that of Aaron, and drive it into a wilderness.

The beginning of the gospel in a wilderness, speaks comfort to the deserts of the Gentile world. Now must the prophecies be fulfilled, I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, Isa 41 18, 19. The wilderness shall be a fruitful field, Isa 32 15. And the desert shall rejoice, Isa 35 1, 2. The Septuagint reads, the deserts of Jordan, the very wilderness in which John preached.

As the prophets did before him, John the Baptist exhorted his audiences to repent, to turn their lives away from sin:

Those who are truly sorry for what they have done amiss, will be careful to do so no more. This repentance is a necessary duty, in obedience to the command of God (Acts 17 30); and a necessary preparative and qualification for the comforts of the gospel of Christ. If the heart of man had continued upright and unstained, divine consolations might have been received without this painful operation preceding; but, being sinful, it must be first pained before it can be laid at ease, must labour before it can be at rest.

John MacArthur looks at the Greek word for ‘proclaim’, or ‘preach’:

It says in verse 1, “He came preaching,” and the Greek word there is “to herald,” “to announce,” “to proclaim,” kerussoAlso, it’s interesting that it says, “In those days came John,” and the verb “came” there is literally used in the Greek to speak of the arrival of an official The arrival of an official.  John was an official herald announcing the arrival of a king; and you know his message in verse 2?  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  And “at hand” means it’s imminent, it’s the next thing

Kerusso, the noun form is krux or krux, and it means “a herald.”  Literally, “one who with a loud voice announces the arrival of a king” – a herald.  And so he was heralding.  He was heralding, and what was he heralding?  “Repent!”  That was the message.  “This kind of King demands that you repent.”  In other words, He wants you to worship Him, but you can’t worship Him legitimately until you get sin out of the way You can’t come to Jesus Christ and just worship Him first.  First, you’ve gotta deal with your sin.  That’s what he was saying.

He was saying to Israel, “Look, you just can’t accept the King and begin to worship the King.  You’ve gotta get rid of your sin.”  In fact, it’s the identical message that Jesus preached when He came.  Matthew 4:17, “From that time Jesus began to preach.” And what did He say?  “Repent.”  Same sermon.  Jesus and John preached the same sermon.  The word “repent,” metanoeo, means more than just sorrow.  We think of repentance, and we say, “Oh, he’s so repentant.  He’s weepy, and he’s sorrowful.”  That isn’t what the word means in the Greek It means “to turn around.”  It means “to be converted.”  It means a change of opinion.  A change of purpose.  A change of direction.  A change of mind.  A change of will.  A change from sin to holiness.

Broadus, who has written a classic commentary on Matthew, says, “Wherever this Greek word is used in the New Testament, the reference is to changing the mind and the purpose from sin to holiness.  It implies sorrow for sin, but that’s not what it means.  It means to turn around.”  It is 2 Corinthians 7 that talks about godly repentance, godly sorrow, that turns you around, and that’s what John was saying He wasn’t just saying, “I want you to feel sorry for your sin.”  He was saying, “I want you to change from sin to holiness.  You will never have the kingdom.  You will never have the King until you turn around.”  The message really could be better translated, “Get converted.  Get converted.”

MacArthur discusses Matthew’s use of the words ‘the kingdom of heaven’:

The precise phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” is not found in the Old Testament; but it is an Old Testament concept.  This is why I say that.  Nebuchadnezzar, for instance, in Daniel 4:37, refers to God as “the king of heaven.”  Daniel 2:44 calls Him “the God of heaven”; and Daniel 4:25 says, “He will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed.”  Now, the God of heaven, the King of heaven, God and heaven are then associated.  The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God then are associated terms.

Now, Matthew uses the term “kingdom of heaven” 32 times; and he is the only gospel writer that ever uses it Mark doesn’t use it.  Luke doesn’t use it.  John doesn’t use it.  They use “the kingdom of God,” and there may be a special reason for that.  As I tried to point out from Daniel, and there are many other illustrations, heaven and God were thought of as synonymous.  God was the King of heaven; and the reason Matthew may use it is because Matthew’s gospel is a characteristically Jewish gospel; and one thing about Jews that you learn historically as you study Judaism is that a Jew would never say the name of God; and in deference to that, they would substitute frequently the term “heaven.”

MacArthur explains what the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is:

The kingdom of heaven has two aspects.  Two aspects – the outer and the inner, and sometimes, in the gospels, the outer is in view, and sometimes the inner is in view Let me show you what I mean.  In the broadest sense, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, includes – watch this – everybody who professes to acknowledge God.  Now, in Matthew 13 we’ll see that, that the kingdom of heaven’s got in it wheat and what?  Tares, right?  That the kingdom of heaven is like a great big bush with birds in it; and you’ve got the true and the false, the real and the non-real.

So in the outer sense, the kingdom of heaven is, is everybody that professes; but in the inner sense, it’s only the really regenerated, born-again, genuinely saved people; and in some passages, the inner is in view; and in some, the outer; and we’ll see that as we go through Matthew.  The big circle of profession includes the true and the false.  The little circle only those truly born again in Christ.

Now, tracing the kingdom will help us a little bit.  Let me give you a quick little historical look at the kingdom.  We’re gonna go flying by, so hang on.  There are five distinct phases in the kingdom.  Five phases.  I, I tried to reduce a very difficult subject to simple terms so I could understand it and pass it on to you simply.

First of all, it’s talking about the rule of God.  The rule of God over the hearts of men and over the world.  Both are included.  Now, the first phase of this thing is the prophesied kingdom, the prophesied kingdom.  For example, Daniel said that God is gonna come and set up a kingdom, a kingdom that’ll never be destroyed; and Daniel foresaw that Christ would be the King of that kingdom It was a prophesied kingdom.

The second thing, the second phase of this is what you could call the present kingdom or the at-hand kingdom; and that was the kingdom described by John the Baptist He was saying, “The prophesied rule of God is now imminent.  It’s now ready.”  Jesus said it.  The twelve said it.  It’s at hand.  It’s coming.  It’s imminent.  It’s near.  The rule of God, the reign of Christ, both internally and externally – it’s here.

Then the third phase of the kingdom was what I call the interim phase The prophesied, the imminent or at-hand, and the interim; and, there, the kingdom is described in this way.  After the King was rejected by Israel, the King returned to heaven, and the kingdom now exists in a mystery form.  Christ isn’t literally in the world, literally reigning, literally sitting in Jerusalem ruling the kingdom; but He reigns a kingdom in the hearts of all who acknowledge Him as Lord, right?  So it’s an interim kingdom, the mystery form.  So you have the prophesied, the at-hand, which would’ve been both earthly and internal, the whole thing; and when they wouldn’t accept the King, the kingdom went inside; and now in a mystery form is in the hearts of those who believe And, as Paul says in Romans 14:17, “The kingdom of God is righteousness and joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.”  It’s internal.

The fourth phase of the kingdom is what I call the manifest phase You start with the prophesied, the at-hand, the interim, and then the manifest; and this is the literal, thousand-year millennium that is to come It will involve an external rule where Christ literally rules, physically in the earth, and an internal where He rules the hearts of the believing people.

The book of Revelation talks about this.  Jesus, in Matthew 16, gave people a glimpse of this in the transfiguration.  So what do you have?  You have the prophesied kingdom, the at-hand one, the interim one, the manifest one for a thousand years; and finally what I call the everlasting kingdom.  Second Peter 1:11, Peter calls it, “The eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  The fifth and final phase.

Now, that’s generally the flow of the kingdom.  The Old Testament prophesied a kingdom — a kingdom that would be external, where they would literally be in the earth; and the earth would be the place of the kingdom; and the earth would be ruled by the King; and it would also be internal, the hearts of the believing people would submit to that reign.  And John and Jesus and the twelve said it’s at hand. But it was rejected, and so an interim, internal kingdom has taken form now that we call this mystery age.  But one day the kingdom will be manifest internally and externally, and then that thousand-year kingdom will exist and, at the end of that, an everlasting kingdom.

This bit is particularly interesting:

So John was talking about the at-hand. Now listen to me – had they received John, and had they received Christ, there never would have been the interim – you understand that there never would have been the mystery church age. They would have gone into the thousand-year manifest kingdom and from there right into the everlasting kingdom, and John would have been that Elijah and it would have all been fulfilled. But when they killed the forerunner and they killed the King, the whole thing was future postponed and in the meantime the mystery kingdom dwells in the hearts of believing people. And Christ may not be reigning in the world, but He’s reigning in my heart, right, and your heart. So John was calling the nation to turn its back on sin, to be converted, to get ready for the kingdom, because the kingdom was coming.  The tragedy of it is that they didn’t hear his message.  They didn’t listen.  They never received the kingdom, and that whole generation died without the King, died without the kingdom, and went into hell. So the man, the message, and the motive.

The notion of the herald continues as Matthew tells is that Isaiah spoke of a man in the wilderness who would cry out, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (verse 3).

MacArthur explains:

Fourthly, the mission. Simply stated, and we’ve already seen it, he was called to be the herald of Christ, but the mission was laid out long before in the Old Testament prophets.  Look at verse 3, “For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'”  He fulfilled Isaiah 40, verse 3, “He is the one of whom the prophets spoke.”  He is the one who was to come and get things ready, and he was preparing a way.  Not a road, not a dirt path, but a way into the hearts of believing people.  He was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

Oh, that’s such a great passage.  Isaiah 40, you see, that tells us about the forerunner in 40, verse 3. But in the verses after it tells us why he was getting them ready.  Listen to chapter 40 verse 1, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” and you can’t know what an exciting thing that was in chapter 40 ’cause they had just had 39 chapters full of judgment; and, boy, here comes this comfort “Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem.  Cry to her.  Her warfare is accomplished.  Her iniquity is pardoned.  She’s received from the Lord hands, Lord’s hands double for her sins.”  All that’s done, and now comes the voice of him that cries in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Why?!  Because the kingdom is coming, and he describes it this way:  “Every valley shall be exalted.  Every mountain and hill shall be made low.  The crooked shall be made straight, and rough places plain.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”  One of the, one of my favorite passages of the Messiah taken from that marvelous text.

You see, John was crying to prepare the people for the kingdom, and Isaiah described the kingdom in 4 and 5.  He was fulfilling the prophetic word of Isaiah.  “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make his paths straight.  Prepare a road into your heart by turning from sin.”  So his mission was preparation, deep conviction.  He wanted to bring to bear on Israel such conviction that they confessed they were unfit, sinners, poor, damned, miserable – he was a judgment preacher.  He was a judgment preacher designed by God from way back in the book of Isaiah to confront a wicked, evil nation and get ’em right for the arrival of the King. So he fulfilled prophecy.

Part of the herald’s job was to make sure that the road upon which the forthcoming king travelled was smooth and free of obstacles.

MacArthur says that the straight paths here were spiritual rather than literal:

So to John was given the role of being the herald of the King, announcing the King’s arrival and making sure the people made the preparations so that the path was smooth This was a customary oriental thing, and John was called to do it.  Only in his case, he was heralding the King of kings; and in his case, he wasn’t asking people to prepare a dirt road He was asking them to prepare the road into their hearts, that the King might enter there.  That was his purpose.

Henry has more on the corrupt religious system that the Jewish hierarchy imposed on the people, legalistic without holiness:

In the Jewish church and nation, at that time, all was out of course; there was a great decay of piety, the vitals of religion were corrupted and eaten out by the traditions and injunctions of the elders. The Scribes and Pharisees, that is, the greatest hypocrites in the world, had the key of knowledge, and the key of government, at their girdle. The people were, generally, extremely proud of their privileges, confident of justification by their own righteousness, insensible of sin; and, though now under the most humbling providences, being lately made a province of the Roman Empire, yet they were unhumbled; they were much in the same temper as they were in Malachi’s time, insolent and haughty, and ready to contradict the word of God: now John was sent to level these mountains, to take down their high opinion of themselves, and to show them their sins, that the doctrine of Christ might be the more acceptable and effectual. (2.) His doctrine of repentance and humiliation is still as necessary as it was then to prepare the way of the Lord. Note, There is a great deal to be done, to make way for Christ into a soul, to bow the heart for the reception of the Son of David (2 Sam 19 14); and nothing is more needful, in order to this, than the discovery of sin, and a conviction of the insufficiency of our own righteousness. That which lets will let, until it be taken out of the way; prejudices must be removed, high thoughts brought down, and captivated to the obedience of Christ. Gates of brass must be broken, and bars of iron cut asunder, ere the everlasting doors be opened for the King of glory to come in. The way of sin and Satan is a crooked way; to prepare a way for Christ, the paths must be made straight, Heb 12 13.

John wore simple clothes made from camel hair along with a leather belt; he ate locusts and wild honey (verse 4).

It is probable that he had taken a lifelong Nazirite vow, as Samson and Samuel did.

However, our commentators note that Old Testament prophets dressed similarly and lived simply without that particular vow.

Henry says that John might have purposely dressed like Elijah:

John appeared in this dress, (1.) To show that, like Jacob, he was a plain man, and mortified to this world, and the delights and gaieties of it. Behold an Israelite indeed! Those that are lowly in heart should show it by a holy negligence and indifference in their attire; and not make the putting on of apparel their adorning, nor value others by their attire. (2.) To show that he was a prophet, for prophets wore rough garments, as mortified men (Zech 13 4); and, especially, to show that he was the Elias promised; for particular notice is taken of Elias, that he was a hairy man (which, some think, is meant of the hairy garments he wore), and that he was girt with a girdle of leather about his loins, 2 Kings 1 8. John Baptist appears no way inferior to him in mortification; this therefore is that Elias that was to come. (3.) To show that he was a man of resolution; his girdle was not fine, such as were then commonly worn, but it was strong, it was a leathern girdle; and blessed is that servant, whom his Lord, when he comes, finds with his loins girt, Luke 12 35; 1 Pet 1 13.

As for his meagre diet from foraging, Henry posits that he probably had more normal meals, just not that often:

… his meat was locusts and wild honey; not as if he never ate any thing else; but these he frequently fed upon, and made many meals of them, when he retired into solitary places, and continued long there for contemplation. Locusts were a sort of flying insect, very good for food, and allowed as clean (Lev 11 22); they required little dressing, and were light, and easy of digestion, whence it is reckoned among the infirmities of old age, that the grasshopper, or locust, is then a burden to the stomach, Eccl 12 5. Wild honey was that which Canaan flowed with, 1 Sam 14 26. Either it was gathered immediately, as it fell in the dew, or rather, as it was found in the hollows of trees and rocks, where bees built, that were not, like those in hives, under the care and inspection of men. This intimates that he ate sparingly, a little served his turn; a man would be long ere he filled his belly with locusts and wild honey: John Baptist came neither eating nor drinking (ch. 11 18)—not with the curiosity, formality, and familiarity that other people do. He was so entirely taken up with spiritual things, that he could seldom find time for a set meal.

The people of Jerusalem and all of Judea as well as those who lived along the Jordan flocked to him (verse 5).

MacArthur says:

This man had an amazing impact.  He called the society to attention.  In Matthew 21:26, it says, “For all men hold John as a prophet.”  It was common belief this was a prophet from God, and they went out. 

John baptised people in the River Jordan and they confessed their sins (verse 6).

This was radical, because the Jews of that era had ritual ceremonial baths but not the type of baths that proselytes — converts — had. John the Baptist’s form of baptism was the kind that those converting to Judaism had.

MacArthur explains:

As much of a shock as it was, people came, and they were baptized, and they confessed their sin Can you imagine it out there? One crowd after another, everywhere, even in Galilee they came.

The fact that they were baptized is shocking.  I’ll tell you why.  Listen to me.  Never — I’ll say it again — never in all history had any Jew submitted to being baptized Okay?  This is something new.  “Oh,” you say, “what about the Levitical washings?”  Those were different.  The Levitical washings of the hands and the feet and the head and all of that were frequent.  There were certain ceremonial bathings among the Essenes, which was a community of the Jews living out in that area; but all of those – listen to this – purification ceremonies were repeated daily and even hourly if you sin.  You understand that?  These were just ceremonial washings, and every time you suspected another pollution, you did it again.

John’s baptism was a one-time, one-shot deal; and Jews never did that.  You say, “Why?”  Listen to this.  Because single baptism was exactly what was required of a Gentile proselyte, who was entering into Judaism. And a Jew who would submit himself to that kind of baptism would be saying, in effect, “I am an outsider seeking entrance into the people of God,” and that’s quite an admission, isn’t it?  They were literally indulging themselves in proselyte baptism.

So, they did this; it was really a step.  A member of God’s chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, baptized like a common proselyte? And, yet, that’s exactly what John asked of them He called Israel to realize that their nationality couldn’t save ’em.  Their race couldn’t save ’em.  They had to forsake sin.  They had to be converted to righteousness.  They had to get in the kingdom like everybody else did; and in the East, no act of religion, no act of crisis in religion was ever done in the heart without an external act to go with it.  That was part of the culture, and baptism in the Jordan River was the sign of the public confession of sin that had occurred in the heart.

So John was calling for a fundamental transformation that even a Jew had to make.  Now, some of these people were hypocritical.  Some of them went through it, but they were phony … the fascinating confrontation with the snakes who were also known as Pharisees.  But they came confessing their sins.  The man had an incredible impact on the entire country.

When John saw the Pharisees — those who had devised the legalistic religious system — and the Sadducees — those who ran the temple system and did not believe in the divinely supernatural — he called them a brood of vipers and asked them who warned them to flee from the wrath to come (verse 7).

MacArthur says that the Pharisees inherited their beliefs from the predecessors, the Hasidim. (Today’s Hasidim are probably a mix of the original and of the Pharisees.) The Pharisees focused more on legalism than holiness:

… it all started out kind of okay with the Hasidim, but by the time it got to the reorganized Pharisees, they perverted everything.  And there was no inward life left.  There was no real devotion.  There was no real consecration.  There was no real piety.  There was no real godliness.  It was all an external, phony deal to set themselves above everybody else as the real super spiritual people.  They were, literally, fanatics at self-righteousness.  They withdrew themselves, Luke 7:39 says, from all sinners.  And they tried to condemn Jesus for even going near sinners.  You remember that?  They blasted Him for hanging around drunkards, winebibbers and sinners, and any of those kinds of people.  They tried to force Jesus into their same kind of fanatical self-righteousness.

The Sadducees got rich off the sacrificial system and courted the Greeks when they ruled, then the Romans:

They didn’t particularly care about the intrusion of Greek culture.  They could have cared less about Greek customs.  They were the ones who courted and kowtowed and hassled around and fiddled with Rome to get everything they could out of it.  The high priests at the time of Jesus were Sadducees.  They were compromisers.  They didn’t believe in any resurrection, so they didn’t have to worry about how they lived ’cause there weren’t any consequences.  They just, you know, made hay while the sun shined, that’s all.  Everything was here-and-now, get it while you can get it, make it while you can.

And so they did everything they could politically to make sure they got out of Rome all they could get and they played the political game to get into the seats of power.  They were few in number, extremely wealthy. They were a priestly party, and the chief priest, by the way, is almost a synonym when you see that in the Bible. The term chief priest, the New Testament, is almost a synonym for the Sadducees.  Their big thing was to make money, and they ran the temple franchises.  You say, “What?”  Oh, yeah, they had big business in the temple.  When certain feast time came – in fact, all year long, when people came there, pilgrims from other countries, to make sacrifices – the first thing they had to do was exchange their money, because they had to buy sacrificial animals.  And in the temple they sold everything, the doves and the pigeons and the goats and the sheep.  They sold it all there.  They provided the whole bit, and when these pilgrims would come to the temple they would first of all have to exchange their money to trade in Jerusalem And the place you exchanged your money was at the temple and, of course, they charged an exorbitant interest to change the money.  And then it turned right around, when they went to buy the animals, they paid incredible prices for the animals and the Sadducees were gettin’ wealthier and wealthier and wealthier.  And that’s why Jesus went in with a whip and cleaned them out.  And when He cleaned the thing out, that’s when He alienated the Sadducees ’cause that was their business that He was messing with.  And that’s why people like Annas and Caiphas hated Him for the rest of the time that He lived and ministered, until finally they got Him to the cross.

MacArthur analyses the verse and explains why the two groups were there:

In Matthew 3 we find a very interesting thing in the Greek “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”  What’s interesting to me about this, in the Greek there are two nouns but only one article And it seems to me that John is kind of pointing to the fact that he saw them as one group.  It’s sort of like he was saying, “and when he saw the Pharisees/Sadducees.”  They’re just like one group, one class of religious phonies, one class of people all wrapped up in the religion of human achievement.  In one case it was get it now, in one case it was earn it for later, in both cases it was the same thing.

You say, “Well, John, if they’re so bad off and they’ve got it all figured out with their human achievement, why are they coming to be baptized?”  Good question.  Why are they coming to be baptized?  What do they want out of John?  Well, you know something?  The Bible doesn’t tell us why they came.  But I’ll give you some reasons that I thought of.  First of all, they may have come because they were curious.  I mean, if the whole city of Jerusalem had come out there, you know that they’re gonna come out.  And it’s amazing that they figured it was a threat to them, too – Right? – or they wouldn’t have banded together.  Or at least we assume they were together because they appear together so frequently following this.  I think maybe, too, that the Bible tells us, you know, that all men perceive that John the Baptist was a prophet, and I think they were intimidated by the population that thought this man was a prophet of God.  And maybe they even had some real questions ’cause they’d had prophetic silence for 400 years.  Maybe they figured that maybe the people are right.  Maybe the guy’s a prophet.  We certainly can’t stay in here and be ignorant while everybody in town’s running out to find out about it.  We gotta find out about this guy.  And so under the pressure of curiosity and the pressure of the people believing he was a prophet, they showed up. And I got another think, too.  I think maybe they figured if they didn’t join the people, they might get left out and then the people would know something they didn’t know and they might lose their influence.

And I think, also, that they probably wanted to get in on the movement so they could move to the top and take it over.  Listen, that’s an old one.  We’ve got that in Christianity today.  We’ve got all kinds of people running churches and running organizations in Christianity who aren’t Christians.  Satan moves these people in.  The apostle Paul told us that.  “Beware, because when I leave grievous wolves shall come in not sparing the flock.”  Watch out for false teachers.  Watch out for false apostles.  Watch out for the people who want to come in and take over the church – false leaders.  They wanted to get in on it.  This was a movement that was gonna make a difference.  If this was a movement that was gonna capture the people, then they were willing to stoop to conquer.  Now, you can see they were all the wrong reasons There was no real repentance, no real repentance, no real confession of sin, no honest spirituality, no real search for God, no real heart-rending sorrow, no desire to get a heart that was sinful righteous, to get ready for the coming King and His kingdom.  They were so smug and self-righteous. They believed that they would be the great exalted ones in the kingdom when it came, just as they were; so they didn’t repent.  There wasn’t any conversion, no transformation.  They were just deceitful hypocrites.  And they just come walking out minding their own business and they run into John.  And I don’t know what they figured about this guy, but I’m sure they didn’t figure what they got.

Henry says that John was warning these two groups about the wrath here and the wrath to come. Recall that the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70:

Note, (1.) There is a wrath to come; besides present wrath, the vials of which are poured out now, there is future wrath, the stores of which are treasured up for hereafter. (2.) It is the great concern of every one of us to flee from this wrath. (3.) It is wonderful mercy that we are fairly warned to flee from this wrath; think—Who has warned us? God has warned us, who delights not in our ruin; he warns by the written word, by ministers, by conscience. (4.) These warnings sometime startle those who seemed to have been very much hardened in their security and good opinion of themselves.

MacArthur explains why John called them a brood — offspring — of vipers:

“O, offspring of snakes, who chased you out here?”  The proud sons of Abraham, honored leaders of the nation, and he says, “You offspring of vipers.”  You know, the Lord must have liked that title for them ’cause He used it a lot.  It became rather common.  Jesus said to them in Matthew 12:34, “O offspring of vipers.”  And then over in Matthew 23:33, Jesus said again to them, “O offspring of vipers”  Boy, I mean, that’s pretty strong stuff.  What does he mean by that?  Well, he exposes in one expression the great and fatal sin that marked them.  He condemns them instantly as religious phonies.  Let me tell you why.  Viper, echidna, interesting little Greek word.  It refers to a small, poisonous desert snake, very familiar to John the Baptist.  And that snake was so deceitful.  It looked like a dead branch or a little stick, and it would stay still and somebody gathering firewood, phe-ew!  That’s exactly what happened on Melita in Acts 28, you remember, in verse 3, the firewood, and Paul was at the fire and that little thing that looked like a stick got Paul, Acts 28.  That was the viper, deceitful.  Suddenly it would strike and sink its teeth in and shoot its poison.  Now, he doesn’t call them just vipers; he calls them offspring of vipers, for they were just the product of the people who preceded them He really talked about the sin of their fathers.  But they were deadly hypocrites.  They were poisoning a whole nation with their fatal deception.  They were passing themselves off as if they were harmless and they were venomous.  And by the way, it was fitting that he called them vipers because their own originator and their own leader was nothing but a viper himself, and who was that? – Satan.  Revelation, chapter 12, verse 9 and Revelation, chapter 20, verse 2, Satan is seen as a serpent.  He is a serpent in the Garden.  John 8, he is a deceiver.  He is a liar.  And so he calls them poisonous, deceitful vipers, snakes.

It is common to see vipers slither out of the way of danger:

… basically, in the desert, and if you were there today, you’d see that this is all there is – in places in the desert there was dry, short grass, and it’s just very dry and you see fields of it.  Maybe it’s sometimes left over from a harvest, but just sometimes growing there.  Perhaps the water of the Jordan allowing some growth and then as the heat of the summer comes and the Jordan becomes a little narrower, it dries out and is very parched.  And then, now and then, around the desert, as John would well know, you would see these stunted little bushes, thorny bushes, very brittle for lack of water.  And sometimes a desert fire would come.  And when a desert fire would break out, it would sweep like a river of flame across that dry grass and those brittle little thorny bushes.  And invariably, and this is still true, in front of that wall of fire would come scurrying these little snakes, these little vipers, and other little scorpions and desert creatures running for their lives In fact, the same thing happened when a field was burned Today in America we still burn fields after harvest.  They did the same then.  During the time when the grain was growing, the snakes would hide in the grain.  They would live there.  And then all of the sudden the harvest would come and they might endure the harvest.  And then the field burning would come and if the field was being burned, you’d see the little snakes fleeing across the desert in front of the fire.  And so John the Baptist faces the snakes and says, “What made you run to safety before the fires of judgment?”  You see this picture?  Graphic.  He sees these people scurrying in front of the flame.  It’s as if to say, “Who brought you snakes out of your holes?” What brought you out of your holes?  What fire got you moving?  And, you know, in his own mind and in his own heart, he knew what that fire was It was the fire of the judgment of God he’s about to talk about.  But that wasn’t what really moved them.  They weren’t moved by the fire of the judgment of God; they were chased out of their holes by Satan The devil had pushed them out there to carry out their hypocrisy.  And just like snakes scurrying before a fire, they were running out there as chased by Satan.  They should have been running out there running from the wrath of God with real repentance.

John warned that repentance is evidenced by worthy fruit (verse 8), meaning that those who have truly turned away from sin will lead sincerely godly lives, not just on the surface — not through legalism — but in spontaneous and heartfelt good deeds.

MacArthur explains:

What he’s saying is there oughta be a change in your lifestyle.  Stop doing what you used to do.  Do righteous things, not unrighteous things.  Be loving and sharing and kind.  He says to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, if you got two coats, give one to somebody and if you’ve got food, give it to somebody who’s hungry.  Let me see something in your life.  That’s exactly what James says: “Faith without works is” – What? – “dead.”  You’ll never prove true repentance unless the fruit of repentance and the work of repentance is visible.  True repentance will manifest a changed life.  And there’s a beautiful little word here.  “Bring forth, therefore, fruits befitting repentance.”  That Greek word means “of equal weight.”  In other words, there ought to be works that are of equal weight with repentance so you can see it’s legitimate And this wasn’t true of them, and he knew it, and they knew it, and everybody around knew it.  And so he nails ’em with it.  “If you’re coming here with genuine repentance, then let’s see it.  Let’s see your life change.”

John had a special message for his fellow Jews: their Abrahamic lineage meant nothing. John said that, if He chose to do so, God could raise stones as children to Abraham (verse 9).

The Jews of that era were fond of saying they had nothing to worry about spiritually, because Abraham was their father. They did not need to repent. John was telling them otherwise, hence the exhortation to be baptised as if they were Gentile converts.

MacArthur elaborates:

“Think not to say within yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our father,’ for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”  Big deal!  “You have Abraham as your father.  God can make a child of Abraham out of a rock.  You’re not so hot.”  Now, this he says, “Stop presuming on your descent from Abraham as a passport to heaven.”  Boy, this was really a shock to them Do you realize that orthodox Jews believed that they were saved by their Jewishness?  I’m sure you know that.  The rabbis said, quote, “All Israelites have a portion in the world to come.”  They believed that.  They talked about – listen to this – they talked about “the delivering merits of the fathers,” “the delivering merits of the fathers.”  They had their own Jewish treasury of merits.  Another thing the rabbis taught was that Abraham sat at the gates of Gehenna and hell to turn back any Israelite who happened by chance to come that way.  They said that it was the merits of Abraham which enabled the ships to sail safely on the seas, that it was because of the merits of Abraham that the rain descended on the earth, that it was the merits of Abraham which enabled Moses to enter into heaven and receive the law, that it was because of the merits of Abraham that David’s prayer was heard, even for the wicked these merits sufficed.  They said, “If thy children were mere dead bodies without blood vessels or bones, thy merits, O Abraham, would avail for them.”  And it’s just that spirit that John is rebuking.  A degenerate person cannot claim salvation on the basis of a heroic past.  An evil son cannot plead the merits of a saintly father.  They were tryin’ to hold onto their nationality.  They were dead wrong

And the Pharisees and the Sadducees that confronted John were headed for hell because they were relying for their eternal security on their descent from Abraham They were Jews, and they were so smug.  And he says to them, “God is able to take these stones and make children unto Abraham out of ’em.”  What a statement.  You see, it minimizes the importance of being a son of Abraham.  But more than that –  listen to this.  It is a symbolic statement, I feel.  If these Jews – now watch – if these Jews, by turning their hearts to stone in resisting God’s converting grace, if they wish to do that, if they wish to turn their hearts to stone, then God will take stones – lifeless, useless, dead things – and make them into his sons And I believe those stones are symbols of the Gentiles “If you want to turn into rocks, dead, lifeless and useless, then I’ll take the dead and lifeless and useless Gentiles and turn ’em into sons.”  In chapter 8, verse 10, Jesus said the same thing.  He met a centurion servant who was a Gentile, and he saw, and he listened and he marveled and he said, “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”  I never met a son like this.  And here’s a rock that I can turn into a son.  “And I say unto you that many” [such Gentiles] “shall come from the east and west and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the sons of the kingdom” – the Jews – “shall be cast out into outer darkness.  There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  If God finds a son who has become a rock; He’ll find a rock that He can make a son out of.  And so John confronts them and condemns them.

There is a note of caution here for Christians, too. Some firmly believe that the denomination they belong to is the only one that brings salvation and that anyone who doesn’t belong to it is destined for hell. That sort of thinking is along the lines of the Jews invoking Abraham here.

MacArthur says:

You know something very interesting to me?  Do you know that the rich man in hell in the story that Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus – You remember that? – the rich man went to hell; the rich man was a man who had Abraham for his father.  That’s right.  He had Abraham for his father.  I’ll tell you something else.  He even heard Abraham call him “son” and it didn’t do him any good.  He recognized Abraham as a father.  Abraham recognized him as a son racially; it didn’t do him any good.  No religious attainment does.

Tying into that verse, John then goes into an agricultural analogy which everyone listening to him would have understood, even if they lived in Jerusalem. He said that the ax is lying at the root of the trees, and that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire (verse 10). Farmers chop down trees that don’t bear fruit. Gardeners do, too. Those trees are wasting space that could be used for productive trees.

Henry says:

It is now declared with the axe at the root, to show that God is in earnest in the declaration, that every tree, however high in gifts and honours, however green in external professions and performances, if it bring not forth good fruit, the fruits meet for repentance, is hewn down, disowned as a tree in God’s vineyard, unworthy to have room there, and is cast into the fire of God’s wrath—the fittest place for barren trees: what else are they good for? If not fit for fruit, they are fit for fuel.

To understand this more fully, MacArthur explains true repentance as expressed in Psalm 51:

First of all is the intellectual.  Repentance begins when there is a knowledge of sin, when there is a recognition of sin.  So John, like any good preacher of repentance, confronted people with sinfulness.  There had to be an understanding of sin involving a sense of personal guilt, a sense of personal defilement, a sense of personal helplessness.  Now, all three of these are illustrated very aptly in Psalm 51first of all is the intellectual part in verse 3 “For I acknowledge my transgression and my sin is ever before me.”  Verse 7, “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.  Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”  Verse 11, “Cast me not away from thy presence.  Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.”  Now, in all three of those verses is a recognition of sin.  Verse 3 explicitly, “For I acknowledge my transgressions, my sin is ever before me.”  Verse 7 and 11, implicit, the sense that he needs to be cleansed, the sense that he needs to be purged, that there is something wrong, that God may leave him, verse 11, the Holy Spirit may be removed from him.  And so there is an acknowledging, an acknowledging of sin, a recognition of what we are before God.  That is the beginning of repentance …

There must be, secondly, the emotional; and … this what we have in the feelings.  We go from the mind to the feelings, and it becomes a recognition not only of sin, but that sin is hateful to a holy God, and then there is an overwhelming sense of guilt in the emotions Psalm 51 again – in this psalm where David is facing his sin, we find this element in verse 1: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness, according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.  Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”  You see, here is a man crying for mercy and the only man who needs mercy is a man who is – What? – guilty.  You see, innocent men don’t need mercy.  Justice will do fine for them.  It’s guilty men that need mercy, and David recognizes here that he is guilty and his emotions are stirred.  In verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart” – he sees the evil in his heart – “O God, renew a right spirit in me.”  Verse 14, “Deliver me from blood guiltiness.”  And David even felt the anxiety and the pain in his physical body He cries out to God in the midst of this sin, in terrible anguish in his heart … True repentance doesn’t think of consequences, it doesn’t think of other people’s opinion, and it doesn’t think of excuses; it does think of transgressing God, it does think of being personally guilty.  So it is lupe kata theon, “sorrow toward God.”  That’s the issue.  And when there is genuine repentance, there will be this deep sense of sorrow directed toward a holy God who has been offended

But no matter how convinced the mind is about sin, and no matter how pained the emotions become, even in the right way, true repentance will never happen without the third area, and that’s volitional – intellectual, emotional, and volitional.  There’s got to be an act of the will.  There’s got to be a turning around With David he recognized it and he felt guilty for it and his guilt was directed toward God, but the thing that really made the repentance happen was the fact that he had an act of will in which he said “I will not do this anymore.  I turn from this.”  He changed his life pattern.  Look at Psalm 51, verse 5.  “Behold, I was shaped in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.”  He recognizes that this is the past, this is the way it was.  But in 7 he says, “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.  Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”  Turn it around.  Turn this depravity around.  Turn this sinfulness around.  “Create,” verse 10, “in me a clean heart, O God.  Renew a right spirit within me.”  You see, his will wanted a dramatic change.  That’s vital.  That’s vital.

Guilt is of no use if we do nothing with it to change our lives with the help of divine grace.

Now on to MacArthur’s explanation of verse 10:

John is saying this: “Look, you can pretend to be running from the wrath to come.  You can pretend to be fleeing from the judgment of God, but if there’s not any fruit there, and if you’re depending upon your self-righteous smugness and your descent from Abraham to save you, you’re in a lot of trouble because the axe is already laid at the root of your tree because there’s no fruit.  There’s an imminency here.  He says – look at it – “the axe is laid unto the root of the trees” already.  “Now,” he says, “it’s there.  It’s there now.  Judgment is now.  It’s imminent.”  Notice a most interesting thing that judgment, in John’s preaching and in all of the prophetic preaching of the Old Testament, was connected with the coming of the Messiah, just as much as salvation was

As Henry said above, there is judgement here and judgement in the life to come. MacArthur agrees:

I can’t help but think back a few weeks ago in Matthew that as soon as that little baby arrived, as soon as that little baby arrived it wasn’t very long until other little babies were slaughtered, until there was chaos in Israel, until 70 A.D. came and the whole nation of Israel was drowned in a bloodbath and the city of Jerusalem literally obliterated from the map When John preached this word, when John said the axe is laid at the root of the tree, do you realize the destruction of Jerusalem was only about 40 years away and it would be all over And so there was imminent judgment.  By the way, this is always true There is always imminent judgment, because the moment you die, the moment any man dies, there is judgment.  Oh, not the final great white throne judgment, but listen, when you die without Jesus Christ, at that moment you go out of the presence of God forever That’s judgment.  And, additionally, God brings about judgment and vengeance even in this life before we die.  If you live a life in violation of God’s principles, you will suffer consequences here and now.  Read the book of Proverbs.  The bottom line in the book of Proverbs is this:  It’s gonna be good for the good and bad for the bad, here and later.  That’s the bottom line in the book of Proverbs.  Good for the good, bad for the bad, now and later.  The axe head is at the root of the tree.  And, of course, ultimately, the great white throne judgment – terrible, fearful, fearful judgment.  So, John had to say judgment is just as near as the kingdom is near.  If the King comes, He comes not only to save, but He comes to judge and always the same.  By what you do with Jesus Christ, you determine whether He’s the Savior or the Judge. 

Then John spoke of Jesus. John said that he provided a baptism of repentance but that Jesus — unnamed here — was more powerful and coming after him; John said he was unworthy of carrying His sandals and that he would baptise the people with the Holy Spirit and fire (verse 11).

Henry says:

See how meanly he speaks of himself, that he might magnify Christ (v. 11); “I indeed baptize you with water, that is the utmost I can do.” Note, Sacraments derive not their efficacy from those who administer them; they can only apply the sign; it is Christ’s prerogative to give the thing signified, 1 Cor 3 6; 2 Kings 4 31. But he that comes after me is mightier than I. Though John had much power, for he came in the spirit and power of Elias, Christ has more; though John was truly great, great in the sight of the Lord (not a greater was born of woman), yet he thinks himself unworthy to be in the meanest place of attendance upon Christ, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear. He sees, (1.) How mighty Christ is, in comparison with him. Note, It is a great comfort to the faithful ministers, to think that Jesus Christ is mightier than they, can do that for them, and that by them, which they cannot do; his strength is perfected in their weakness. (2.) How mean he is in comparison with Christ, not worthy to carry his shoes after him! Note, Those whom God puts honour upon, are thereby made very humble and low in their own eyes; willing to be abased, so that Christ may be magnified; to be any thing, to be nothing, so that Christ may be all.

Of Christ’s forms of baptism, Henry tells us:

By the powerful working of his grace; He shall baptize you, that is, some of you, with the Holy Ghost and with fire. Note, [1.] It is Christ’s prerogative to baptize with the Holy Ghost. This he did in the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit conferred upon the apostles, to which Christ himself applies these words of John, Acts 1 5. This he does in the graces and comforts of the Spirit given to them that ask him, Luke 11 13; John 7 38, 39; See Acts 11 16. [2.] They who are baptized with the Holy Ghost are baptized as with fire; the seven spirits of God appear as seven lamps of fire, Rev 4 5. Is fire enlightening? So the Spirit is a Spirit of illumination. Is it warming? And do not their hearts burn within them? Is it consuming? And does not the Spirit of judgment, as a Spirit of burning, consume the dross of their corruptions? Does fire make all it seizes like itself? And does it move upwards? So does the Spirit make the soul holy like itself, and its tendency is heaven-ward. Christ says I am come to send fire, Luke 12 49.

John warned that Christ’s winnowing fork is in His hand and that he will clear the threshing floor, gathering His wheat — the saved — into His granary but burn the chaff with unquenchable fire (verse 12).

Henry explains:

By the final determinations of his judgment (v. 12); Whose fan is in his hand. His ability to distinguish, as the eternal wisdom of the Father, who sees all by a true light, and his authority to distinguish, as the Person to whom all judgment is committed, is the fan that is in his hand, Jer 15 7. Now he sits as a Refiner. Observe here [1.] The visible church is Christ’s floor; O my threshing, and the corn of my floor, Isa 21 10. The temple, a type of church, was built upon a threshing-floor. [2.] In this floor there is a mixture of wheat and chaff. True believers are as wheat, substantial, useful, and valuable; hypocrites are as chaff, light, and empty, useless and worthless, and carried about with every wind; these are now mixed, good and bad, under the same external profession; and in the same visible communion. [3.] There is a day coming when the floor shall be purged, and the wheat and chaff shall be separated. Something of this kind is often done in this world, when God calls his people out of Babylon, Rev 18 4. But it is the day of the last judgment that will be the great winnowing, distinguishing day, which will infallibly determine concerning doctrines and works (1 Cor 3 13), and concerning persons (ch. 25 32, 33), when saints and sinners shall be parted for ever. [4.] Heaven is the garner into which Jesus Christ will shortly gather all his wheat, and not a grain of it shall be lost: he will gather them as the ripe fruits were gathered in. Death’s scythe is made use of to gather them to their people. In heaven the saints are brought together, and no longer scattered; they are safe, and no longer exposed; separated from corrupt neighbours without, and corrupt affections within, and there is no chaff among them. They are not only gathered into the barn (ch. 13 30), but into the garner, where they are thoroughly purified. [5.] Hell is the unquenchable fire, which will burn up the chaff, which will certainly be the portion and punishment, and everlasting destruction, of hypocrites and unbelievers. So that here are life and death, good and evil, set before us; according as we now are in the field, we shall be then in the floor.

Before I forget, MacArthur has an English anecdote that needs correction. As he preached these sermons in 1978, he did not have the benefit of the Internet.

MacArthur’s sermon says:

The story goes that Lady Huntington was invited, or rather invited, I should say – the Duchess of Birmingham – to come to hear George Whitfield preach.  The duchess responded in this manner, quote, “It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.  It is highly offensive and insulting,” end quote.  Well, Lady Huntington was insulted when George Whitfield attempted to call her to the recognition of sin, and consequently she never entered into the act of repentance.

I do wonder about the veracity of that story, since Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791), devoted her life to the Christian faith and to charity. George Whitefield became her personal chaplain and preached to invited guests in one of her homes in London. She had connections with Anglicanism, her first denomination, then Calvinism and, finally, Methodism, participating in the work of the Great Revival.

In closing, MacArthur tells us what made John the Baptist the greatest human that ever lived:

Number one, made him great, he was obedient to God’s Word.  From the very beginning of his life, he obeyed.  From the very start of his life, he obeyed.  He never wavered from the calling that God had given to him.  From the time that he was a little child, he obeyed God.  That’s part of greatness.

Second, he was filled with the Spirit.  Luke 1:15 says he “was filled with the Spirit from the time of his mother’s womb.”  He was great because he was obedient.  He was great because he was filled with the Spirit of God.  He was controlled by the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, he was great because he was self-controlled.  Luke 1:15 says he, “drank neither wine nor strong drink.”  Matthew 3 says that, “His clothes were only what was necessary, and his food the same.”  The man had self-control.  The man had brought his body into subjection.  He didn’t overdo anything …

Fourth, he was great not only because of his obedience, because he was Spirit-controlled, because he was self-controlled, but because he was humble He was humble.  The greatest thing he ever said, I think, in this regard was when Jesus finally arrived on the scene, and the disciples who had so fallen in love with John the Baptist were gathered around John, and they said, “And, John, now what?  This, this is the Messiah, and He’s come, but, but what about you?”  And John said in John 3, in verse 30, “He must increase, and I must” – What? – “decrease.”  “It’s over for me, guys.  You go and give your love to Him.  I’m not even worthy to unlatch His shoe.”  Right?  That’s what he said.  Humble.

Fifth, he was great because he proclaimed God’s Word.  “Behold, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.  Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  You can hear him thundering it out, “He shall turn many of the people to righteousness.”  That’s the sixth He not only proclaimed God’s Word, he won people to Christ He was obedient, filled with the Spirit, self-controlled, humble, proclaiming God’s Word, and winning people to Christ.  “He shall turn many of the hearts of the people to righteousness.”  And he did.

You say, “Oh, boy, but even if I did all that, I’d never be as great as John.”  Hang onto your seat and listen to this.  Matthew 11:11 says, “Verily I say to you, among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.”  Now listen to this.  “Nevertheless, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  You get that? Shock.  Listen, we’re in the kingdom; and any of us, the least of us in the kingdom, surpasses the one who foretold its coming.  We have all the resources he looked for.  We have all the realities he searched for.  We have all the blessings he anticipated.  We’re not greater in terms of character.  That isn’t what he’s saying.  We’re greater in terms of privilege and opportunity.

It’s like Jesus said to His disciples, “Greater things than these shall” – What? – “ye do, because I go to My Father.” We can be great for God.  The least of us, greater than the greatest who ever lived.  That’s what it is to be in His kingdom.  Are you grateful?

That is certainly something to ponder in the days ahead. So often, we take our spiritual blessings for granted, but they are the greatest gifts we can receive in this life, because the Lord gave them to us.

advent wreath stjohnscamberwellorgauThe First Sunday of Advent is on November 27, 2022.

It is the first day of the new Church year.

As such, we move to a new year in the Lectionary, from C to A, for our readings, which can be found here.

In addition, as we are in Advent, the colour of the celebrant’s vestments is purple until the midnight service on Christmas Eve.

The Gospel reading is as follows, emphases mine:

Matthew 24:36-44

24:36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,

24:39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

24:42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

24:43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.

24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

If this reading sounds familiar, we had Luke’s version a fortnight ago on the Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity, Year C.

The Gospel readings for Advent and the last Sundays after Trinity/Pentecost are designed to encourage us to think about our own mortality and repentance.

Our Lord’s discourses on His Second Coming take place in the same circumstances, just a few days before the Crucifixion. In Luke 21, His disciples admired the beauty of the temple.

We have the same in Matthew 24:

1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Luke places his Second Coming discourse at the temple. By contrast, Matthew’s is at the Mount of Olives:

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Note Matthew 24:35:

35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

Christ here assures us of the certainty of them (v. 35); Heaven and earth shall pass away; they continue this day indeed, according to God’s ordinance, but they shall not continue for ever (Ps 102 25, 26; 2 Pet 3 10); but my words shall not pass away. Note, The word of Christ is more sure and lasting than heaven and earth. Hath he spoken? And shall he not do it? We may build with more assurance upon the word of Christ than we can upon the pillars of heaven, or the strong foundations of the earth; for, when they shall be made to tremble and totter, and shall be no more, the word of Christ shall remain, and be in full force, power, and virtue. See 1 Pet 1 24, 25. It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than the word of Christ; so it is expressed, Luke 16 17. Compare Isa 54 10. The accomplishment of these prophecies might seem to be delayed, and intervening events might seem to disagree with them, but do not think that therefore the word of Christ is fallen to the ground, for that shall never pass away: though it be not fulfilled, either in the time or in the way that we have prescribed; yet, in God’s time, which is the best time, and in God’s way, which is the best way, it shall certainly be fulfilled. Every word of Christ is very pure, and therefore very sure.

John MacArthur summarises the events of that Passover week leading up to this discourse and what was going through the disciples’ minds:

He has done signs and wonders to prove His kingdom power.  He has recently denounced the false religious leaders of Israel.  He has cleansed out the temple of all of the godless enterprises that were being done in that place.  He has also announced that there will come soon a desolation of the whole temple complex, and He even has pronounced the truth that He would come in glory.  And all of these things have led them to believe that it must be very, very soon.  In fact, Luke 19:11 says they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear I mean it seemed to them that He was there announcing Himself as King, He was there destroying the false religious system that existed in order that He might establish the true spiritual kingdom promised to them by the prophets of old And so they were filled with anticipation. 

Jesus said that, of the day and the hour of His Second Coming, no one knows when it will happen, not the angels, not He Himself, only the Father (verse 36).

MacArthur explains why no one knows:

It is a day and an hour we’re looking at, not an era.  We don’t know what generation it’ll come upon, but we do know this, that whatever generation it starts with, it’ll end with, right?  That’s verses 32 to 35.  The generation that sees the beginning is going to see the end because it’s going to come so fast …

God has chosen not to reveal that specific moment and to give no specific sign of that specific moment.  And there’s reason in His great wisdom for that.  If men knew the exact moment when the Lord would come, they might be godless until just short of that moment.  Or even the people who were prepared might be living in panic or might be giving up, thinking the time was too short.  Life would become hopeless if you knew exactly when the Lord was going to come.  There could be no plans, there could be no ongoing relationships, and everything would be affected dramatically by that knowledge.  So the Lord has chosen not to give us that knowledge but to live every moment expecting His coming, every moment expecting His intervention, so that there is preparedness all the time.  If the world knew the very moment of the coming of Christ, it would dawdle itself away thinking that in that last and final moment it might take the steps to make things right just in time and so God has not told us that.  So no man knows that.  It is hidden from men. 

And then He says, “No, not the angels of heaven.”  Even the angels don’t know it.  The natural world does not know it and neither does the supernatural world

Furthermore, if you remember in Matthew 13, it tells us that the angels are the agents of judgment in the second coming When God reaches out to judge the world and gather men into that judgment, He sends His angels who are the reapers, you remember, to gather the wheat and the tares in So angels are very involved in the judgment activity.  In verse 31 of our chapter we’re looking at now, the angels are the ones sent out to gather the elect as well.  So though angels are the intimates of God and though they are face-to-face with God in a spiritual sense, doing His bidding, and though they are the agents of judgment and the gathering in of the godly and the ungodly in that time of Christ’s coming, they – in spite of all of that – do not know the exact moment.  God has chosen not to reveal it to them.  And He has His reasons. 

Then we come to the question of when Jesus Christ came to know the day and the hour. From the time of either His resurrection or ascension, He knew:

Now, the better manuscripts of Matthew indicate to us that it also should be included in the text “nor the Son” – “nor the Son.”  In Mark 13:32, which is the parallel passage, it is definitely included by Mark, “Of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no not the angels who are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.”  And it would be best to include it here in Matthew.  I think in the New American Standard and the New International version, they correctly do include it.  Jesus says, “Even the Son of Man doesn’t know” – “even I don’t know.”  And, of course, this has created all kinds of interesting discussion How is it that Jesus Christ, who is God, cannot know something?  How is it that Jesus Christ, who is God, who is omniscient – which means He knows everything – can’t know something or doesn’t know something? 

Well, that’s, I believe, rather easily explained if we understand the meaning of His incarnation.  Jesus Christ is fully God, very God of very God,  theologians used to say He is God fully and totally because you can’t be part God, He is all God.  But when He became a man, He voluntarily restricted the use of His godhood, of His divine attributes It wasn’t that He laid the attributes aside; it wasn’t that He set His deity aside; it was that He restricted the use of those things.  He had them as instruments but chose not to pick them up and use them.  So He lived, as it were, without using His omniscience unless the Father told Him to use it. 

We know He was omniscient on some occasions.  John 2, He says He needed not that anybody should tell Him what was in the heart of a man because He knew what was in the heart of a man.  There are many indications of His great knowledge, of His divine knowledge.  But He restricted the use of His omniscience to those things which the Father desired Him to know.  That is the design of the incarnation.  When the Bible says He became a Son, He took upon Him the form of a servant.  It means that He submitted Himself to that which the Father wanted Him to do, that which the Father wanted Him to say, and that which the Father wanted Him to know.  That’s why in John 15:15, you have a very, very important verse in understanding Christ.  It says this – Jesus speaking to the disciples – “Henceforth, I call you not servants for the servant knows not what his lord does.  But I have called you friends” – now listen to this – “for all things that I have heard of My Father, I have made known unto you.” 

In other words, Jesus’ knowledge in His incarnation was qualified by what the Father had revealed to Him And the Father revealed things to Him through Scripture; that is, the Old Testament, as He studied the Scripture, through experience as He walked in the world and saw the moving of the power of God, and through direct revelation.  But Jesus limited His knowledge to what the Father chose to reveal to Him He didn’t have to do that but He chose to do that to play the role of a servant to accomplish the redemption of mankind.  It’s a very important concept so that when it says He humbled Himself and took upon Him the form of a servant, was made in fashion as a man, and so forth, it means that He limited the use of those attributes.  And if you studied, for example, in the passages that deal with His early life, you will remember that it says Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, you remember, and favor with God and man.  He grew in wisdom …

Now, it is my own personal feeling that after the resurrection, this was revealed to Him That when He came out of the grave in the glory of His resurrection life, it says in Matthew 28:18, He said to His disciples, “All authority is given unto Me in heaven and earth.”  And I think what that’s saying is nothing is missing; I have authority over all things.  And then in Acts 1:7, He said this:  “But unto you it is not given to know the times and the seasons which My Father has put in His own power,” and He doesn’t include Himself anymore He says “unto you it isn’t given.”  So it may well be that after the resurrection, His knowledge was complete.  It’s as if the Father only revealed to Him the next great event, and He never revealed to Him the full moment of His second coming until He had already come out of the grave and accomplished the resurrection, and then the Father opened to Him the next event in His marvelous, marvelous work. 

Therefore, Jesus knew the day and the hour, if not at His resurrection, then at His ascension:

when Jesus entered into His glory, if not immediately after His resurrection, certainly after His ascension, He then was entered back into the fullness of that which He had before the incarnation and this moment right now, He knows fully when that second coming moment will be But in the midst of that incarnation, that had been abandoned in favor of learning what the Father would tell Him and nothing more. 

MacArthur believes that God is waiting for an excess of sin, iniquity that has reached its limit:

He is allowing sin to run its reckless course, to spend itself, to ripen to the point where it will be fully, finally, and forever harvested. 

Paul wrote similarly to the Thessalonians about the Jews who had prevented the Gospel from being spread. My Forbidden Bible Verses post from Sunday, November 20 discussed Thessalonians 2:16:

16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last![a]

The persecuting Jews of Paul’s time hadn’t been divinely judged at that time, which was 20 years before the destruction of the temple. Nonetheless, Paul was saying that they had sinned to such an extreme that God’s judgement was as good as done, on earth and in the next life. When iniquity has reached its full extent, God acts.

However, there is another equally important reason God has timed the Second Coming perfectly, and that is because He wishes to save as many people as possible from judgement, Jew and Gentile alike:

… that reason is indicated to us in Romans chapter 11 verse 25 And it says, “I would not, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, this unrevealed truth, lest you should be wise in your own conceit, but blindness, that blindness in part is happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in.”  The fullness of the Gentiles speaks of the gathering in of the church in this age.  And I believe another reason the Lord waits is for the gathering of the church.  I believe He is waiting to gather all the saints whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.  He is waiting to collect the Gentiles who will forever and ever and ever throughout eternity give Him glory, give Him praise, give Him honor, give Him adoration and serve Him.  He is gathering together occupants for His eternal heaven to praise and glorify His name.  And also, after “the fullness of the Gentiles be come in” – verse 26 says – “so all Israel will be saved.”  There has to be also in the future the salvation of Israel, that Jew and Gentile together through all eternity may praise God. 

So there’s been a time going on since the first coming.  We’ve waited all this two thousand years and He’s not yet come.  And the reasons are twofold One, that sin may ripen; two, that the redeemed who have been planned for His glory eternally may be brought to that eternal glory.  So it is for sin and for salvation. 

Jesus said that, as things were in the time of Noah, so they will be when the Son of Man comes again (verse 37).

It took Noah 120 years to build the ark to God’s specifications. Noah was not a natural builder. He was originally a preacher. Those who lived around him laughed at him, because they lived in a desert.

Consider that every moment of every day for those 120 years, every bit of that ark was a daily call for them to repent of their sins or be destroyed in the flood, which did come to that part of the world. Talk about the patience of God! And still, the people laughed.

Imagine what it will be like just before the Second Coming.

MacArthur illustrates it for us:

You know, not only do people not know the day and the hour the Lord is coming, but most of them aren’t even going to care Even with all the signs and all the wonders and all the things going on, they’re not going to care.  They’re not even going to think about it.  They won’t even be considering that as an alternative.  It’s hard to imagine that.  I mean it’s really hard to imagine that.  They’ll be scoffing and mocking like in 2 Peter chapter 3.  And they’ll be getting out their little slide rules and they’ll be getting out their little charts and they’ll be fussing around with their computers and they’ll be analyzing the universe to try to explain scientifically why everything’s going haywire Why there are earthquakes and why there are all kinds of movements in the heavens and why the tides are all messed up and why the moon goes out and why the sun isn’t working properly and why daylight has been shortened and why there’s blood in the seas and there’s bitterness in the fresh water and why people are slaughtering each other and why there are terrible massacres all around the world They’re going to be trying to figure all this out sociologically, scientifically, rationallyBut they’re not going to look to the truth of the Word of God

Jesus had more to say about Noah’s era. People were preoccupied with a comfortable life, eating and drinking, marrying and giving people in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark (verse 38).

Henry says that their comforts and passions consumed them. The same was true before the destruction of the temple in AD 70:

Eating and drinking are necessary to the preservation of man’s life; marrying and giving in marriage are necessary to the preservation of mankind; but, Licitus perimus omnes—These lawful things undo us, unlawfully managed. First, They were unreasonable in it, inordinate and entire in the pursuit of the delights of sense, and the gains of the world; they were wholly taken up with these things, esan trogontesthey were eating; they were in these things as in their element, as if they had their being for no other end than to eat and drink, Isa 56 12. Secondly, They were unreasonable in it; they were entire and intent upon the world and the flesh, when the destruction was at the door, which they had had such fair warning of. They were eating and drinking, when they should have been repenting and praying; when God, by the ministry of Noah, called to weeping and mourning, then joy and gladness. This was to them, as it was to Israel afterwards, the unpardonable sin (Isa 22 12, 14), especially, because it was in defiance of those warnings by which they should have been awakened. Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die; if it must be a short life, let it be a merry one.” The apostle James speaks of this as the general practice of the wealthy Jews before the destruction of Jerusalem; when they should have been weeping for the miseries that were coming upon them, they were living in pleasure, and nourishing their hearts as in a day of slaughter, Jam 5 1, 5.

Jesus continued, saying that the people of Noah’s time knew nothing of the flood until it came to sweep them away; so shall it be when the Son of Man returns (verse 39).

Henry says that material security breeds carnality:

First, Therefore they were sensual, because they were secure. Note, the reason why people are so eager in the pursuit, and so entangled in the pleasures of this world, is, because they do not know, and believe, and consider, the eternity which they are upon the brink of. Did we know aright that all these things must shortly be dissolved, and we must certainly survive them, we should not set our eyes and hearts so much upon them as we do. Secondly, Therefore they were secure, because they were sensual; therefore they knew not that the flood was coming, because they were eating and drinking; were so taken up with things seen and present, that they had neither time nor heart to mind the things not seen as yet, which they were warned of. Note, As security bolsters men up in their brutal sensuality; so sensuality rocks them asleep in their carnal security. They knew not, until the flood came. 1. The flood did come, though they would not foresee it. Note, Those that will not know by faith, shall be made to know by feeling, the wrath of God revealed from heaven against their ungodliness and unrighteousness. The evil day is never the further off for men’s putting it far off from them. 2. They did not know it till it was too late to prevent it, as they might have done if they had known it in time, which made it so much the more grievous. Judgments are most terrible and amazing to the secure, and those that have made a jest of them.

He has a present day application for us:

The application of this, concerning the old world, we have in these words; So shall the coming of the Son of man be; that is, (1.) In such a posture shall he find people, eating and drinking, and not expecting him. Note, Security and sensuality are likely to be the epidemical diseases of the latter days. All slumber and sleep, and at midnight the bridegroom comes. All are off their watch, and at their ease. (2.) With such a power, and for such a purpose, will he come upon them. As the flood took away the sinners of the old world, irresistibly and irrecoverably; so shall secure sinners, that mocked at Christ and his coming, be taken away by the wrath of the Lamb, when the great day of his wrath comes, which will be like the coming of the deluge, a destruction which there is no fleeing from.

MacArthur provides this analysis of the comparisons with the people of Noah’s time:

It’s almost unbelievable that they knew not, that the people in the time of Noah didn’t know it was going to rain because they had had somebody telling them that for 120 years Noah was a preacher of righteousness.  And he preached righteousness and judgment.  And he gave them a very large sign of coming judgment by building a massive boat, an ark.  Literally the word means “wooden chest.”  This was the symbol and the sign, 120 years in building, that God was going to bring a devastation to drown the world.  And it says until the Flood came and engulfed them, they didn’t realize it They just went on eating, drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage.  In other words, they went on with the routines of life, literally ignoring the preaching of judgment, literally ignoring the sign and the symbol of the coming Flood And so it will be in the day of the second coming of Christ

They will ignore even the sign of the Son of Man in heaven; they will explain it away; they will rationalize it away. They will do something with it other than accept what it intends to purvey, what it intends to communicate, what it intends to say.  And when Jesus comes, they’ll be shocked.  Hard to imagine, but such is the blindness of the human heart.  Such is the darkness of the human mind.  Listen, they couldn’t even tell when God Himself walked in their midst.  Why should they be better able in that period to understand than they were when Jesus was here?  When the truth is, all hell having broken loose on the earth in that age, sin will be worse than it’s ever been. 

So they’ll not see the truth.  Oh, there will be a great salvation.  The Jews will be redeemed and there will be a great redemption among the Gentiles, as Revelation 7 says.  But there will still be a massive, worldwide populace of people who, having lived through all of the unbelievable events which we’ve chronicled in chapter 24, will still find the second coming of Jesus Christ occurring to them in an unexpected way It’s unbelievable.  In spite of all the signs

Also:

You see, in the days of Noah, people ignored the truth, didn’t they?  Do you know how long Noah preached?  Second Peter 2:5 calls Noah a preacher of righteousness.  Do you think he just built a big wooden chest – that’s the word ark, it’s a – the word is the word for a wooden chest, he built a big wooden chest in the middle of the desert and told people there was going to be a flood And they laughed because it had never rained.  There was no such thing as rain.  And there was no water there.  And you know how long he built that boat?  A hundred and twenty years and they laughed and they ridiculed and they mocked and they derided him. 

But 2 Peter 2:5 says he was a preacher of righteousness.  He wasn’t just a boat builder, he was a preacher.  Before he was a boat builder, he was a preacher.  And for 120 years while he built the boat, he must have been asked a million times, “Why are you building the boat?”  Right?  “Why are you building the boat?”  And that was the trigger for the sermon, “Because God is going to judge the wickedness of this world, and only those who put their faith in Him are going to escape.  And I’m building the boat as a way of escape.  Would you like to come on?”  And they laughed and they laughed and they mocked.  For 120 years, they went on with life as usual while he preached judgment, preached judgment, preached judgment, and demonstrated it to them by building a great big wooden chest right in the middle of everywhere so everyone could see it And they didn’t buy it.  And I’m sure the first time a raindrop hit somebody’s nose, they thought a dinosaur sneezed behind a hill or something.  Still wouldn’t believe it.  They didn’t want to believe that.  They could have come up with all kinds of excuses not to believe that. 

Jesus described simultaneous salvation and damnation in the next two verses.

Henry says that this took place when the temple was destroyed. No Christians in Jerusalem perished, a historic fact:

When ruin came upon Jerusalem, a distinction was made by Divine Providence, according to that which had been before made by divine grace; for all the Christians among them were saved from perishing in that calamity, by the special care of Heaven. If two were at work in the field together, and one of them was a Christian, he was taken into a place of shelter, and had his life given him for a prey, while the other was left to the sword of the enemy. Nay, if but two women were grinding at the mill, if one of them belonged to Christ, though but a woman, a poor woman, a servant, she was taken to a place of safety, and the other abandoned. Thus the meek of the earth are hid in the day of the Lord’s anger (Zeph 2 3), either in heaven, or under heaven. Note, Distinguishing preservations, in times of general destruction, are special tokens of God’s favour, and ought so to be acknowledged. If we are safe when thousands fall on our right hand and our left, are not consumed when others are consumed round about us, so that we are as brands plucked out of the fire, we have reason to say, It is of the Lord’s mercies, and it is a great mercy.

Jesus said that two — two men, that is — are in the field working, one will be taken and one will be left (verse 40).

MacArthur confirms that Jesus spoke of men:

The word “one” in verse 40 is masculine in gender … The man’s task in that particular agricultural part of the world in that time was to be in the field …

Not forgetting women, Jesus said that two of them would be grinding meal — grain — together; one will be taken and one will be left (verse 41).

MacArthur says:

The “one” in verse 41 is feminine in gender … the women were there with the stone, the mill, grinding that which was harvested by the men. 

We can interpret ‘taken’ as being saved or judged. Either is correct.

Henry leans towards salvation:

We may apply it to the second coming of Jesus Christ, and the separation which will be made in that day. He had said before (v. 31), that the elect will be gathered together. Here he tells us, that, in order to that, they will be distinguished from those who were nearest to them in this world; the choice and chosen ones taken to glory, the other left to perish eternally. Those who sleep in the dust of the earth, two in the same grave, their ashed mixed, shall yet arise, one to be taken to everlasting life, the other left to shame and everlasting contempt, Dan 12 2. Here it is applied to them who shall be found alive. Christ will come unlooked for, will find people busy at their usual occupations, in the field, at the mill; and then, according as they are vessels of mercy prepared for glory, or vessels of wrath prepared for ruin, accordingly it will be with them; the one taken to meet the Lord and his angels in the air, to be for ever with him and them; the other left to the devil and his angels, who, when Christ has gathered out his own, will sweep up the residue. This will aggravate the condemnation of sinners that others shall be taken from the midst of them to glory, and they left behind. And it speaks abundance of comfort to the Lord’s people. [1.] Are they mean and despised in the world, as the man-servant in the field, or the maid at the mill (Exod 11 5)? Yet they shall not be forgotten or overlooked in that day. The poor in the world, if rich in faith, are heirs of the kingdom. [2.] Are they dispersed in distant and unlikely places, where one would not expect to find the heirs of glory, in the field, at the mill? Yet the angels will find them there (hidden as Saul among the stuff, when they are to be enthroned), and fetch them thence; and well may they be said to be changed, for a very great change it will be to go to heaven from ploughing and grinding. [3.] Are they weak, and unable of themselves to move heavenward? They shall be taken, or laid hold of, as Lot was taken out of Sodom by a gracious violence, Gen 19 16. Those whom Christ has once apprehended and laid hold on, he will never lose his hold of. [4.] Are they intermixed with others, linked with them in the same habitations, societies, employments? Let not that discourage any true Christian; God knows how to separate between the precious and the vile, the gold and dross in the same lump, the wheat and chaff in the same floor.

MacArthur interprets ‘taken’ as if in judgement:

It’s based on that picture of the flood sweeping men away into death.  Two are going to be in the field when that final devastating flood of fire comes. And one is taken in judgment. Two at the mill and one is taken in judgment.  And the other left – the other left – what are they left for?  They’re left to go into what?  Into the kingdom ... They are the redeemed So you’ll have people on the job.  Some will be believers and some will be unbelievers.  The unbelievers will be swept away and the believers will be preserved. 

Jesus told His disciples — and us — to stay awake, to be aware, for we do not know what day the Lord is coming (verse 42).

Henry tells us that sleep is akin to sinfulness. All of us will die, so we need to be prepared:

Note, It is the great duty and interest of all the disciples of Christ to watch, to be awake and keep awake, that they may mind their business. As a sinful state or way is compared to sleep, senseless and inactive (1 Thess 5 6), so a gracious state or way is compared to watching and waking. We must watch for our Lord’s coming, to us in particular at our death, after which is the judgment, that is the great day with us, the end of our time; and his coming at the end of all time to judge the world, the great day with all mankind. To watch implies not only to believe that our Lord will come, but to desire that he would come, to be often thinking of his coming, and always looking for it as sure and near, and the time of it uncertain. To watch for Christ’s coming, is to maintain that gracious temper and disposition of mind which we should be willing that our Lord, when he comes, should find us in. To watch is to be aware of the first notices of his approach, that we may immediately attend his motions, and address ourselves to the duty of meeting him. Watching is supposed to be in the night, which is sleeping time; while we are in this world, it is night with us, and we must take pains to keep ourselves awake.

Be ye also ready. We wake in vain, if we do not get ready. It is not enough to look for such things; but we must therefore give diligence, 2 Pet 3 11, 14. We have then our Lord to attend upon, and we must have our lamps ready trimmed; a cause to be tried, and we must have our plea ready drawn and signed by our Advocate; a reckoning to make up, and we must have our accounts ready stated and balanced; there is an inheritance which we then hope to enter upon, and we must have ourselves ready, made meet to partake of it, Col 1 12.

Jesus gave a practical analogy: if the owner of a house knew when the thief was coming, then he would have stayed awake and not allowed his house to be broken into (verse 43).

Jesus meant that He will return suddenly, like a thief in the night. Thieves move quickly. By prefacing it with ‘understand this’, He was putting emphasis on it.

MacArthur explains the verse:

“But know this” – or “I think this” – it could be an imperative, it could be an indicative.  I like to think it’s an indicative.  That is, it states a fact Comparing with verse 42, “You do not know what hour your Lord does come, but you do know this.”  I mean this is obvious.  You do know this.  “That if” – and it’s “if” with a condition in the Greek that is contrary to fact – if and he doesn’t, but if he did, if the householder had known in what watch, that is, in what three-hour period during the night. The Jews divided the night into four three-hour periods from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.  6:00 to 9:00, 9:00 to 12:00, 12:00 to 3:00, 3:00 to 6:00.  He says, “If a householder knew what hours in the middle of the night the thief would come, he would have watched and allowed his house – not allowed his house to be broken into.”  Literally the Greek word for breaking in is “digging through”

So He says you don’t know when the Lord’s coming, but you do know this, if a man knew when a thief was coming, if he knew in general, not the minute or even the hour, but if he just knew the general watch, if he knew the general timeframe, he sure would be ready for him when he got there, right?  He sure would.  And that’s what He’s saying.  That you do know.  Any fool knows that if a robber’s coming and you know he’s coming, you’re going to be ready for him when he gets there. 

And the Lord’s coming is often likened to the coming of a thief.  And it would be good at this point to say that it is not because it is a criminal coming.  The likening of the Lord’s coming to a thief, which occurs here, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 3:3, Revelation 16:5, Luke 12:35-40, which I’ll show you in a moment. It also occurs in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and following.  And those places where the Lord’s coming is likened to a thief, it is not that Christ is like a thief, it is that Christ will come suddenly and unexpectedly like a thief comes suddenly and unexpectedly That’s the only analogy.  That’s the only analogy. 

Jesus ended His discourse by saying that we must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour (verse 44).

This refers to death as well as the Second Coming, as Henry explains:

We know not the day of our death, Gen 27 2. We may know that we have but a little time to live (The time of my departure is at hand, 2 Tim 4 6); but we cannot know that we have a long time to live, for our souls are continually in our hands; nor can we know how little a time we have to live, for it may prove less than we expect; much less do we know the time fixed for the general judgment. Concerning both we are kept at uncertainty, that we may, every day, expect that which may come any day; may never boast of a year’s continuance (James 4 13), no, nor of tomorrow’s return, as if it were ours, Prov 27 1; Luke 12 20

… his saying “I come quickly.” obliges us to be always expecting him; for it keeps us in a state of expectancy. In such an hour as you think not, that is, such an hour as they who are unready and unprepared, think not (v. 50); nay, such an hour as the most lively expectants perhaps thought least likely. The bridegroom came when the wise were slumbering.

It is best for us to get our spiritual house in order, starting now, so that we are ready for our deaths:

Note, First, We have every one of us a house to keep, which lies exposed, in which all we are worth is laid up: that house is our own souls, which we must keep with all diligence. Secondly, The day of the Lord comes by surprise, as a thief in the night. Christ chooses to come when he is least expected, that the triumphs of his enemies may be turned into the greater shame, and the fears of his friends into the greater joy. Thirdly, If Christ, when he comes, finds us asleep and unready, our house will be broken up, and we shall lose all we are worth, not as by a thief unjustly, but as by a just and legal process; death and judgment will seize upon all we have, to our irreparable damage and utter undoing. Therefore be ready, be ye also ready; as ready at all times as the good man of the house would be at the hour when he expected the thief: we must put on the armour of God, that we may not only stand in that evil day, but, as more than conquerors, may divide the spoil.

In studying the Gospels, we notice that Jesus often told parables about being prepared for the master or the bridegroom.

MacArthur gives us one example:

the Lord very often taught the same lessons using the same illustrations or very closely related ones As any good teacher knows, you repeat good things and you repeat good illustrations in different settings because they’re helpful to people And the Lord here in Luke chapter 12 is also concerned in warning people about His second coming He says, “Let your loins be girded about and your lamps burning, and you yourselves like men that wait for their lord when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks you may open unto him immediately.”  I mean, be ready so that when he comes back, everything is as it ought to be.  “Blessed are those servants whom the lord when he comes shall find watching.  Verily I say unto you that he shall gird himself and make them to sit down to eat, and will come forth and serve them.” 

Amazing.  When the Lord comes back, if you’ve been faithful, He’ll sit you down to eat and He’ll serve you.  That’s the kingdom.  If you’re prepared when He comes, you’ll sit down with Him in His kingdom and He will serve you.  And if He should come in the second watch or come in the third watch and find them so, then blessed are those servants because they’re ready whenever He comes They know He’s coming.  They don’t know when it is, but they’re ready.  “And this know, that if the owner of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not permitted his house to be broken through.  Be ye therefore ready also for the Son of Man comes at an hour when you think not.” 

Now you can go back to Matthew 24.  It’s the same idea.  It’s the same basic lesson.  It’s the same idea that He has given here, that when He comes is a devastating judgment.  When He comes is an immediate glory for the redeemed.  So be ready.  And since we don’t know when it is, and no one knows when it is, and no one can know when it is, we need to be ready at all times – at all times.  So alertness and readiness. 

Advent readings are to remind us of repentance and new life. John the Baptist preached before Jesus began His ministry. Advent is that time of preparing ourselves for His coming to earth as a humble infant to save us as the adult who died humiliatingly for our sins.

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