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Sunday, December 03, 2017

On the Mount (7)

While the prophet Daniel revealed the coming of a “kingdom that shall never be destroyed” that was to be “given to the people of the saints of the Most High”, John the Baptist got the job of formally announcing the arrival of the King to his nation.

If all we had to go on was the book of Daniel, we might associate heaven’s kingdom with the power, glory and dominance of the earthly empires that preceded it, and which it would forever eclipse and obliterate: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome.

That idea would not be wrong so much as it would be incomplete.

A Kingdom of Priestly Character

John the Baptist was the son of a godly priest; thus it is that the kingdom he announced has a suspiciously priestly character, one for which a change of heart is absolutely critical. John’s first recorded words are these: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

If we want to know from where it was that John got his vision of Israel’s future, we need look no further than his father Zechariah, who also spoke under the direction of the Holy Spirit of God. Zechariah’s kingdom teaching begins with deliverance:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”
National salvation was Step 1 in God’s program.

A Stone Cut Out By No Human Hand

Daniel saw this too. The great stone “cut out by no human hand” that symbolized heaven’s kingdom struck the image that symbolized the great empires of history, completely destroying it. Then it became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. Where did it strike the image? Why, on its feet of course; feet which we now know symbolized the same world empire that oppressed the Jews of Jesus’ day. That stone must inevitably speak of Judea’s deliverance, a fact that surely did not escape Zechariah.

But national salvation was only the beginning. In Zechariah’s prophecy, God visits and redeems his people with a specific end in view:
“… to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
That is no ordinary world empire. In time, the citizens of ordinary empires become decadent, complacent, self-absorbed and useless. History shows us that’s a poor recipe for maintaining one’s position of worldly prominence. No, this would be a unique kingdom: a kingdom of priestly character (and no one better than a priest to talk about priestly service); one in which the redeemed serve their Redeemer every day of their lives.

Again, this “tender mercy” of God in visiting his people was:
“… to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Since John the Baptist grew up steeped in the old priest’s kingdom teaching, it is hardly surprising that Zechariah’s son would speak first to his fellow Jews of their personal responsibility in repenting and in making the way straight for the arriving King. He was his father’s son, and he saw the imminent coming of the kingdom as a very practical matter.

Nothing New to See Here

It may be for this reason that John, like the Lord Jesus, did not come railing against Roman oppression as some might well have expected from the herald of Messiah. It was not John’s job to deal with Rome: the stone that would strike the great image required no human hand to cut it out. Rather, John saw it as his mission to bring about the spiritual conditions under which the King would grant favor to the subjects of the kingdom; to “show the mercy promised to our fathers”.

With that in mind, John taught his fellow Jews, Share your spare tunic. Give up graft and extortion. Be content, and especially be humble. In short, bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” If that seems an unlikely recipe for world domination, it’s because it was God’s recipe.

I point this out because we’re about to encounter these very same themes of personal responsibility, holiness and service to God in the Sermon on the Mount, and I want to establish that while the Lord said much that day on the mountainside that may have sounded new or new-ish to members of his audience poorly-grounded in the Old Testament or who did not fully comprehend the Hope of Israel, nothing he taught that day was the least bit inconsistent with the words of the Holy Spirit through John the Baptist’s father more than thirty years previously, nor was any of it inconsistent with the hopes of truly devout Jews.

A Jolt to the Complacent

In fact, John’s message was a startling one to those complacent souls who might view themselves as perfectly adequate for kingdom living. To these sorts, John declared:
“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
It is unclear to me whether John is comparing his audience to trees individually or whether he was generalizing about how God deals historically with all nations. Both messages, however, were very much relevant, and a single remedy would suffice to deal with both issues; that being individual repentance.

The implication was that if the citizens of the promised kingdom were unwilling to make themselves fit for life under their King, well then, the King was perfectly capable of finding himself some new subjects who would.

Holy Living and the Kingdom

This necessity for holy living is another aspect of the kingdom we will find reprised again and again in the Sermon. But we must continually remind ourselves that its message is directed at the original subjects of the kingdom: the nation of Israel.

We Christians come into the story only once Israel is temporarily laid aside. And we are only relevant in God’s kingdom purposes to the extent that we choose to produce the fruit Israel wouldn’t.

If we can’t be bothered doing that … well, we’ll soon see how God handles wicked servants. The King’s character has not changed one iota in two thousand years, regardless of the character of those who style themselves his subjects.

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