John The Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was the great herald sent to Israel to prepare them spiritually for the Dispensation that was about to commence. His ministry was one calculated to level spiritual pride and proclaim the insufficiency of man (Isaiah 40: 3-8). This leveling was needed, for the nation’s leaders were swollen with spiritual and intellectual pride. Their inflated notions concerning their own importance, in addition to their contemptuous treatment of those who would not succumb to their authority, are well documented in the pages of the New Testament. The Rabbinical writings of after years have also left us ample testimony as to the narrowness of their character and views.
It was John who begins the Gospel message by crying “Repent!” (Mark 1: 1-4). Repentance is truly the beginning of the Gospel, for before one can receive the “good news” concerning God’s grace, one must know where one stands as a sinner. The law may reveal one’s own sorry condition. But too often its tendency is to harden men’s hearts. In many cases, the thunders of Sinai must make themselves heard before the sinner can realize the peril of his or her state. The plough must be applied before the sower can go forth.
John came to Israel with an urgent message of repentance, proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand (Matthew 3: 2).
The phrase “Kingdom of Heaven”– or more exactly, the “Kingdom of the Heavens”– is a phrase which occurs in Matthew’s Gospel thirty-two times, but is not found elsewhere in the New Testament. While Matthew uses the phrase “Kingdom of God” three times, we believe there is a reason for the change in language. Since Matthew is the Gospel of the King, it is clear that the “Kingdom Of Heaven” refers to the Messianic earth rule of Jesus Christ. It is the subject of Old Testament prophecies which authoritatively interpret the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7). It is Jewish and national in character.
The Kingdom of Heaven is identical to that great stone mentioned in Daniel 2, which is seen breaking apart the kingdoms of the world and filling the entire earth (v. 34-35, 44-45). Although we don’t have space to go through all the prophecies of Daniel, let’s remember that it is the Gentile kingdoms that are destroyed in this vision. We will need to keep this point steadily in mind. Like John’s vision of the beast from the sea in Revelation 13, the colossus seen in Daniel 2 is not destroyed until it is in its final and composite form. It is not a piecemeal devastation brought about by the establishment of Christ’s kingdom. It is a complete worldwide overthrow.
Daniel’s colossus has its type in Goliath, the Gittite giant who defied the Living God. The stone cut out of the mountain without hands is probably antitypical of the killing stone that David used to bring Goliath down (1 Samuel 17: 40, 49). And of course, the one to effect the final deliverance is the Son of David Himself.
John’s statement that the Kingdom of Heaven was “at hand” meant that the kingdom was ready to be manifested to Israel.
It happened this way. The prophets had revealed that the nation could only partake of kingdom-blessing by way of righteousness. Far from changing the Divine message, John confirmed that a better righteousness than the Scribes and the Pharisees offered was needed to get into it (Matthew 3: 8-10).
According to Scripture, it was the righteousness of the King himself who would establish the kingdom. God had told Solomon that if he continued to walk before Him as did David his father, the throne of his kingdom would be established for ever (1 Kings 9: 4-5; cf. 1 Chronicles 22: 10; Psalm 132: 11-12). This was a term of the Davidic Covenant.
Israel had been without a king since Nebuchadnezzar carried the nation into captivity in 588 B.C. Ezekiel had prophesied that the kingdom would be overturned, and would be “no more” until he came whose right it was (Ezekiel 21: 25-27).
Now Jesus was the “son” of Joseph. Joseph could have claimed the throne–had he not been descended from Solomon through Jechoniah (Jeremiah 22: 28-30), since Jechoniah’s sons were barred from ruling. Mary was descended from David, but through Nathan (Luke 3: 31)–making her lineage Davidic, but not royal. Because Christ was born of the virgin Mary, He was a natural descendant of David. But He was also the legal heir of Joseph. The restriction against any of Jechoniah’s sons sitting on the throne did not apply to Him, because He was not Joseph’s natural son. This made Him the sole eligible claimant to Israel’s throne.
Because Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit, He did not inherit a sinful nature. In fact, He was completely without sin. Christ is Immanuel, which meaneth “God with us” (Matthew 1: 23). This made Him the only person who could sit on the throne of David and actually fulfill the terms of the Davidic Covenant. When John the Baptist proclaimed that the kingdom was really “at hand,” he was not kidding. He was heralding the advent of a legally descended Jewish King with a legitimate right to the crown.
It is strange to hear some of the foremost leaders in Christendom today claim that the term “Throne of David” means a spiritual, non-literal throne. Their position is that John was simply heralding a new “spiritual kingdom”–a smoke-and-mirror show rather than the culmination of Old Testament Messianic prophecy. That there was indeed a spiritual dispensation in the offing is not denied. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let us remember that John was an Old Testament Jew (Luke 16: 16), and was familiar with the prophets. He was announcing a physical kingdom, because that’s exactly what Israel was. Christ’s genealogy and birth, and the pains taken to record them in both Matthew and Luke, show what kind of “kingdom” it was that John was heralding.
The reason it never materialized, is that the “way” was never made “straight,” nor the rough places made “plain.” The nation was still as “crooked” as ever, and rejected John’s message through its leaders who were the nation’s representatives. Those who sat in Moses’ seat considered John merely the founder of a new sect, and did not agree that his mission was Divine (Luke 20: 6).
Christ’s sitting on the throne would have immediately inaugurated the kingdom and established it forever. But then how to deal with man’s fallen state? The King’s righteousness would have done His people little good unless He could impart that righteousness to them. That would not be changing the terms of the kingdom. It would be fulfilling its terms and enabling it to happen all “according to the Scriptures.”
The Davidic Covenant has a built-in provision which states that if the king commits iniquity, he will be chastened with the rod of men (2 Samuel 7: 14). But how could this apply to Christ? The answer is that while Christ could never be punished for His own sins–for He had none–He would be punished for the transgressions of His people. The Scripture had predicted as much (Isaiah 53: 8). “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53: 6).
This part of the program, however, was hidden from those who had been judicially blinded to the truth. The leaders of the nation had brought that blindness upon themselves. They had reduced the Old Testament notions of the kingdom to abstract theological quibbling and displays of religiosity. It wasn’t the physicality of the kingdom that made them remiss. It was taking the doctrine of the kingdom and making it the food and fodder of scholastic speculation. It was a profligate politicization of Israel’s Hope.
This state of things divided Israelites into three “camps”– the Pharisees, the Sudducees, and the Herodians. The Pharisees were the legalistic crowd. Their over-analysis of the law stripped it of its spirituality (Romans 7: 14), leaving only a burdensome shell of ritual observance. The Sadducees were your typical rationalists–doubters of the supernatural who dragged the miraculous elements of Israel’s history down to a purely natural plane. The Herodians were the worldlings and opportunists: the compromisers who shifted gears whenever the socio-political winds blew from a new direction. Regardless of who was right or wrong, these groups effectively shut up the kingdom of heaven against men (Matt. 23: 13). Through their instrumentality, Christ would be delivered up to death. To them, the King of Israel was an “outsider” who must be silenced.
John’s preaching of the Kingdom as “at hand” was a bona fide offer because its truth rested upon God’s faithfulness to the Davidic Covenant. The King was ready for the Crown. But the nation wanted nothing to do with Him.
Malachi had predicted that Elijah would be sent before the Day of the Lord (Malachi 4: 5-6). Had the nation accepted John the Baptist’s testimony, he would have been reckoned as Elijah. “And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come” (Matthew 11: 14).
The results of John’s ministry can be clearly seen in the pages of the New Testament. The valleys were filled, certainly, for the common people flocked to John’s baptism. But the mountains and hills still refused to be leveled. Had the leaders of the nation repented, the way would have been made plain for the Son of David to take the throne.