John the Baptist had been emphatic in his declarations that he was not the Messiah. He was merely preparing the way. His baptistic mission was intended to make Christ manifest to the nation (John 1: 31). To the Jews, baptism was a proselytical ordinance required by Gentiles before they could come into Judaism. It signified cleansing from Gentile defilement.
Hebraic scholar John Lightfoot (1602-1675) quotes Maimonides as saying: “Whensoever any heathen will betake himself, and be joined to the covenant of Israel, and place himself under the wings of the divine Majesty, and take the yoke of the law upon him, voluntary circumcision, baptism, and oblation, are required: but if it be a woman, baptism and oblation” (Commentary On The New Testament From The Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. 2, pg. 55).
There was not a trace of irony in John’s baptism. The need for repentance and cleansing was paramount to his teaching, but it was no new concept. Of old, Ezekiel had predicted that the nation would be restored once they were given a new heart and new spirit (Ezekiel 36: 24-28).
“For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
The “Palestinian Covenant” of Deuteronomy 30: 1-10 also contains the provision of national restoration to the land linked to a promise of national regeneration (v. 5, 6). Far from being fulfilled in the Jews’ return from Babylon in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the promise was re-iterated by a post-exilic prophet (Zechariah 2: 4-12; 12: 9-10).
The cited passages should be studied very closely. Christ said nothing different from the Old Testament prophets or John the Baptist when He stressed the need for entrance into the kingdom by “water and spirit” (John 3: 5). These were the “earthly things” that Nicodemus couldn’t understand (John 3: 12). The “heavenly things” would only come into play once the “earthly things” were ignored or rejected. John’s message was one of great spiritual import, but it still related to Israel’s earthly program.
Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan is filled with typical significance. It sets forth the truth regarding the need to be “born from above.” Christ didn’t have to be “born again” because He was the Son of God, and without sin. However, in His baptism He set forth His own death and resurrection as illustrative of the dying-to-sin and rising-to-newness-of-life of all believers. As the people’s representative, Christ did these things in a real and personal sense. He died to sin once, when He took our sins upon Him (Romans 6: 10). He arose to newness of life at His resurrection, showing that our sins are put away. These truths lay the groundwork for Pauline teaching regarding the new birth (Romans 6: 3-6).
“It becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3: 15). Dying to sin and walking in newness of life is the “righteousness” needed to enter the kingdom. This righteousness is attained by spiritual quickening of the new birth, through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection.
Christ’s ministry begins exactly where that of John the Baptist leaves off. It is not a different message, but the same message. It speaks of the need for a regeneration: one that will secure a real and “living” righteousness, that inheritance in the Kingdom may be had.
A brief synopsis of Christ’s ministry is in order. Since Matthew is the Gospel of The King, we can best give an overview of the King’s mission by summarizing its contents:
Chapter 1: The genealogy of the King.
Chapter 2: The birth of the King.
Chapter 3: The baptism of the King.
Chapter 4: The temptation of the King.
Chapter 5: The King announces the laws, and describes the subjects, of His kingdom, having already anticipated His rejection by Israel.
Chapter 6: The King sets forth the doctrine of the New Covenant; passing from outward actions to inner motives and principles.
Chapter 7: The King shows the relation of His subjects to each other, stressing the need for fruit-bearing, and warning against false profession.
Chapter 8: The King’s presence is manifested in grace and power to Israel.
Chapter 9: Effect of the King’s presence upon the leaders of the nation.
Chapter 10: The King’s messengers are sent forth to the cities of Israel.
Chapter 11: The King is morally rejected by the nation.
Chapter 12: The nation is morally rejected by the King.
Chapter 13: The “Kingdom In Mystery;” or the kingdom existing in concealment during this present time of Israel’s rejection, after Christ is removed to heaven (Hosea 5: 15).
Chapter 14: The “Mystery of Iniquity” is touched upon. The King teaches safety in flight during tribulation.
Chapter 15: Gentile blessings are revealed “outside the land” during Israel’s rejection.
Chapter 16: The Church is revealed; occupying the present period while the Kingdom is in its “Mystery” form.
Chapter 17: A glimpse of the “Kingdom in Manifestation.”
Chapter 18: Spiritual precepts for members of the Kingdom.
Chapter 19: Spiritual precepts continued, and future Kingdom-rewards revealed.
Chapter 20: The King gives precepts regarding pre-eminence and “position” in the Kingdom.
Chapter 21: The King presents Himself to Israel, predicting chastisement upon the nation for rejecting Him.
Chapter 22: The nation’s leaders are rebuked for their unbelief.
Chapter 23: The nation’s leaders are rebuked for their hypocrisy. National desolation is announced, and the King’s return made conditional upon national repentance.
Chapter 24: The King describes events that will precede His return; emphasizing the suddenness and universality of the parousia.
Chapter 25: The King unfolds doctrine regarding the parousia. The “three phases” of the parousia are described.
Chapter 26: The New Covenant is instituted. The King is betrayed, forsaken, and denied.
Chapter 27: The New Covenant blood is shed. The King is crucified.
Chapter 28: The King is risen. The New Covenant heralds go forth.
Obviously, we have here given the barest skeleton of an outline, and Bible students will have to fill in the details themselves. It is not unlikely that an oversized volume could be written on each of these chapters. What we are doing here is barely skimming the surface. But even this will help to clear away the mists of confusion from an understanding of the King’s work and mission.
It is crucial that we recognize Christ as Son of God, Son of Man, and Son Of David. The Gospel of Mathew emphasizes all three aspects. However, Christ’s kingly role is paramount. Luke will talk more regarding Christ as Son of Man, and John will elaborate all the truths regarding His Divinity.
The title “Son of Man” points us back to the first man Adam. In Christ, we see man restored to his pre-fall state. The dominion that Adam lost through the Fall was fully exercised by Jesus Christ during His ministry to Israel. He healed the sick, cast out devils, and controlled the forces of nature. The fact that Christ excised this dominion proves that He was the promised Seed of the Woman. Israel needed nothing more than His works to see that the Kingdom was “among them” in the person of its King (Luke 17: 21).
And yet, to aggravate their hypocrisy, the nation’s representatives had asked Christ for a sign (Matthew 12: 38; ch. 16: 1; John 2: 18). Christ’s ministry was all about signs. His works proved His mission as Divine. Had He not been the Son of God, He could not have forgiven sin. The proof that He could was demonstrated by removing sickness, one of sin’s consequences (Mark 2: 9-11; cf. John 5: 14). His cures were far greater than any earthly physician could effect.
But the Pharisees and the Sadducees would not believe that the works He was doing were proof that the kingdom had drawn near. This was perhaps their most grievous sin. They had received a supernatural revelation from Moses and the prophets, and should have been ready, had their hearts been prepared to receive God, to believe the works. “If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if ye do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in Him” (John 10: 37-38).
Given their obstinacy, it was only natural that they would reject Him, for they had rejected Moses who foretold His advent (John 5: 46-47). Consequently, their blindness became ingrained and incurable. Just as Old Testament Israel would not believe that the earthly, temporal judgments being heaped upon them were sent by God on account of their sins, Israel would not believe the works Christ did as proof that the King was in their midst. By rejecting the works, they rejected not only the Doer, but the Father Who sent Him. Their rejection culminated in the crucifixion.
Christ answered their initial demand for a sign by saying that it was an evil and adulterous generation; and that no sign would be given but the sign of the prophet Jonas (Matt. 12: 39-40).
Scholarship tends to ignore the significance of this statement, and its prophetic bearing upon the destiny of the nation. But a full elaboration of this “sign” (Gr. semeion) is in order.
We believe that the sign indicated by our Lord involves not only His being in the “heart of the earth” for three days and three nights, as Jonah was in the belly of the whale (Jonah 1: 17); but also the message He would send forth into the world after His resurrection. As the antitype of Jonah, Christ would preach a message of repentance to the whole world, starting with Israel. As the kingdom must come through Israel, it would be sent to the Jew first. This proclamation would put the world on a stopwatch set to end in forty years.
One must carefully study the story of Jonah, and his warning that Nineveh would be overthrown in forty days (Jonah 3: 4). In agreement with the type, Christ spent forty days after His resurrection instructing His apostles concerning the kingdom of God.
As a Hebrew prophet, Christ was familiar with the typological meaning of prophetic “days.” “And thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days: I have appointed thee each day for a year” (Ezekiel 4: 6). Thus, the forty days which our Lord spent teaching His followers were literal, as well as representative, days. The message He was sending His disciples to preach was a message of grace and forgiveness based upon His atoning work on the cross; but also–like Jonah’s–a call for repentance.
Christ’s dying on the cross for the sins of the world forestalled the unleashing of God’s wrath upon a guilty world. The “judgment seat” became a “mercy seat,” and a proclamation of grace and forgiveness went out to all men, on the alone condition of faith in Christ crucified.
As the antitype of Moses, Christ would lead His people out of Egypt, showing them the things of the kingdom–as Moses showed Israel the promised land at Kadesh-Barnea (Numbers 13). Israel could have entered the promised land immediately had they believed the report of the spies. It was only their unbelief that kept the nation wandering for forty years. When the forty years ran out and “that generation” died in the wilderness, the futurity of the promised blessings still held good. But it was a new generation that entered the land through Joshua.
After the inauguration of the new Dispensation begun at Pentecost, the nation would be given forty years of probation. Should Israel fail and the forty years expire, the kingdom would not materialize; but it would still be held in reserve for a “new generation”–that is, all those who follow Christ, the true Joshua.
In a sense, we are translated into the kingdom the moment we believe (Colossians 1: 13). The coming of the kingdom per the “Lord’s Prayer” petition, however, depends on Christ’s advent and is yet future. It involves corporate salvation, as did Israel’s entrance into the land. Our present translation into the kingdom is individual and personal.
“Verily I say to you, this generation may not pass away till all these may come to pass” (Mathew 24: 34, Young’s Literal Translation). This is a conditional statement. Not only did Christ set forth a condition for His return in Matthew 23: 39; but the original Greek of Matthew 24: 34 uses the strong negative “ou me” to denote that that generation would by no means pass away, until certain contingent events might have occurred. The contingency is denoted by the Greek particle ‘an,’ which always imports an element of uncertainty into a statement whenever it is used. So perfect is the Word of God in all of its parts, that it has preserved this element of conditionality.
Once the forty years were expired, that generation would pass away. The establishment of Christ’s kingdom would still be just as certainly future–as much as it had been during the forty years from the cross to A.D. 70. But the promises would no longer be to the “Jew first.” With the complete removal of the wall of partition (Ephesians 2: 14), and the breaking off of the natural branches of the olive tree (Romans 11: 17), kingdom-promises would apply to all believers regardless of ethnicity. Covenant-relation would only be through Abraham, and no longer through Moses. This state of things would mark the full establishment of the Church Age. Israel’s re-grafting into the olive tree, their national restoration, and the return of Christ and the establishment of His worldwide kingdom, would come at a later time.
We’ll recall that before leaving the temple, Christ had pronounced a sentence of doom on the nation through its representatives. He told them their house would be left desolate, and that His return would be conditional on their saying: “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23: 39). They would not “see” Him until they were ready to receive Him. The words quoted by Christ from Psalm 118: 26 are the same ones shouted by the multitude when Christ made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11: 9-10). It was the coming of the Son of David, and would have been the inauguration of His Kingdom had the nation received Him. But there were other things in the Divine plan that had to take place first.