"Seizing the Kingdom"
(Delivered Sunday, March 19, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; do you realize what a privilege it is to live in the times in which we live?
And I'm talking about something far greater than just the immediate present. I mean that, out of all of the possible times in the recorded history of the human race that we could have lived, we - by God's sovereign grace - have been granted to live in the most exciting extended period of all time. It is the period that has, to this point, been two-thousand years long; but it's that time that the Bible refers to as "the end of the ages".
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The apostle Paul used that very phrase to describe the times in which he lived - and in which we live too. He wrote to the Corinthian believers about God's mighty works to the Jewish people, recorded for us in the Old Testament; and said, "Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come" (1 Corinthians 10:11).
This time that Paul called "the end of the ages" began when - according to the prophetic Scriptures of the Old Testament - the Son of God took human flesh upon Himself and walked on this earth. Hebrews 1:2 says that God has thus spoken to us by His Son "in these last days". They are "last", because they are the days toward which all of the previous ages pointed and looked ahead to. Jesus has come, as it says in Hebrews 9:26, "once at the end of the ages".
You may not be accustomed to thinking about what exciting times these are, because they have been progressing along now for two-thousand years. And you and I have lived in only a tiny portion of these days. But don't let the length of this period, and our short time in it, lull you into indifference about it! Viewed from the standpoint of all of human history, you are very privileged. You are living in the most unique and exciting times! You are living in times to which the prophets of old looked ahead to and inquired deeply into (1 Peter 1:10:11). And what's more, these times are limited. They will come to an end - perhaps very, very soon! The next great event in God's program of history is the return of Jesus Christ bodily to this earth, to reign upon it as King of kings and Lord of lords!
And so; in the light of all this, the Bible teaches us to live with a sense of excitement and urgency that is appropriate to the times! The apostle James teaches us to be patient, and to establish our hearts in a serious pursuit of the faith, "for the coming of the Lord is at hand" (James 5:8). The apostle Peter tell us to be serious, and watchful in our prayers, because "the end of all things is at hand" (1 Peter 4:7). The apostle John urges us to live with watchfulness and discernment, and to cling tightly to the truth about Christ that we have been taught, because "it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18).
And my question to you, dear brothers and sisters, is this: Are you living as seriously in your faith as these great times demand? Are you pressing on with the excitement and earnestness and zeal of someone who is living in the end of the ages; and who is about to receive an eternal kingdom? Or are you living as if none of these things are true, and as if life on earth will just go on as it always has?
Are you living with a sense of the excitement of the times . . . or with indifference to them?
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I have been thinking of that question as I studied this morning's passage. It tells us the story of how this great and exciting period in which we are living first began to be declared. Our passage concerns itself with the announcement of the long-awaited "kingdom of God" to the Jewish people for whom it was first intended. It tells of how the kingdom's first great herald - John the Baptist - presented it to his Jewish kinsmen; and also of how our Lord Jesus Christ offered Himself to them as their King.
And it also tells us of how this great "kingdom" offer was welcomed by the Jewish people. Sadly, it was greeted with a tragic 'yawn' of indifference! Here, the long-awaited kingdom was being offered to them; and yet, when it came to receiving it, they did not. As a result, its King Himself finally told them, "Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it" (Matthew 21:43).
And here we are today - living as Gentiles who have been brought into the covenant promises of Israel, who have been made the recipients of that offered kingdom. It is now no longer the possession of only the Jewish people, but of all people who place their faith in King Jesus. By God's grace, we Gentiles - formerly "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise" - have been brought near (Eph. 2:12); and are now "fellow heirs" and "partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel" (3:6).
And this morning's passage encourages us not to receive that offered kingdom with indifference, but to eagerly seize ahold of it - living as we do in the times that the Bible calls "the end of the ages". It's a call to live our Christian lives with the sort of excitement, and zeal, and earnestness, and sacrifice, and whole-hearted devotion that is appropriate to those living "in the end of the ages".
It's a call to eagerly seize the kingdom!
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Let's set the scene for this passage. Something had just happened that, I believe, left the people who saw it in a bit of shock. John the Baptist - the mighty prophet - had expressed disappointment with Jesus.
John had no doubts that Jesus truly was, indeed, the Messiah. God Himself had made that clear enough to him (Matthew 3:16-17). But Jesus was not proving to be the kind of Messiah John had been expecting Him to be. John had been expecting Jesus to be a mighty, conquering general that would defeat the Roman empire, cast them out of the Jewish land, and sit upon the throne of King David and reign over His people. Instead, Jesus was going about healing people; and John was wasting away in prison because of the boldness of his preaching.
Matthew tells us;
And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me" (Matthew 11:2-6).
As you can see, John presented his question to Jesus; and Jesus met that question head-on. I believe that there were people all around who heard all this; and I believe that it raised questions in their minds about John. And so, Jesus answered those questions as well. And in answering those questions, He taught the people about the importance of the times in which they were living - and the kind of demands those times would make on them.
The kingdom was, indeed, being offered to them; and it was up to them to receive that kingdom with the kind of excitement, enthusiasm, and obedience that the offer deserved. First, notice how Jesus speaks to them about . . .
I. THE HERALD OF THE KINGDOM (vv. 7-10).
Jesus sent those two disciples back to John. And Matthew then tells us,
As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written:
Jesus, it seems to me, waits to say these words until the two disciples left. And then, perhaps as the crowd watched the two disciples walk down the road, Jesus asks the crowd about their expectations of John and what they went out into the wilderness to see.
John's ministry, you'll remember, was out in the wilderness of Judea. He wasn't a travelling preacher who came into town. It would have taken some effort for people to go out to hear him; and yet, the Bible tells us that people from Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan River went out to hear him. And Jesus asks what it was, when they expended all that effort and went out all that way to hear him, that they were expecting to see.
He asks - I believe just a little bit sarcastically - "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A read shaken by the wind?" If that's what they went out to see, they were certainly in for a surprise; because John was no wimpy little reed that got blown around by the winds that blew around him. He wasn't simply preaching what the culture around him pressured him to say. He wasn't trying to please people. He said things like this:
"Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 3:7-10).
I like what J. Vernon McGee said; that John was no 'reed shaking in the wind'! He was a mighty wind, shaking the reeds! There was no preacher like John! No one spoke with the mighty authority that he spoke with! And any one who thought otherwise would have been in for a surprise when they heard him!
By the way; the people to whom Jesus was speaking had just seen an example of John's boldness. I believe it took great guts to send his representatives to the Son of God and ask, "Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?" John wasn't being disrespectful; but he wasn't being a wall-flower either! He had a question; and he wanted to know the answer! And he got one! That's the kind of man John was!
Then Jesus further asks, "But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses." Any one who went out to hear a nice, pretty-faced pulpiteer in a shiny, sequined chapel - some sissy sermonizer in a silk suit - was clearly going in the wrong direction when they went out into the wilderness in the first place!
Matthew tells us that "John himself was in clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey" (Matthew 3:4). John lived the rugged life of a prophet who had a word from God burning within him. He dressed as a prophet from God would dress (Zech. 13:4), and there was no pretense about him. He didn't dine at a fancy table, and didn't live in a fancy house. He lived as an out-of-this-world kind of man with a not-from-this-world kind of message; and the only thing that mattered to him was to proclaim it!
John put the people who heard him on the fork of the road! He told people, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matthew 3:2); and when you heard him, you had no choice but to either repent or become hardened! He was the kind of preacher who didn't tell people what they wanted to hear, but rather made them hear what they needed to know. And anyone who accidentally went out into the wilderness to hear "a man clothed in soft garments" got their minds very thoroughly blown away by him as soon as they heard him!
And so, Jesus goes on to say, "But what did you go out to see?" And perhaps someone shouted out, "A prophet!" - which, of course, was the right answer. But it was only partly right. Jesus says, "A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet." And Jesus then lets us know how unique John really was.
Jesus quoted from Malchi 3:1 - the last book of the Old Testament; and said, "For this is he of whom it was written: 'Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You!'"1 In other words, John was a prophet. But he was a prophet unlike any other prophet before him. He was a "prophesied prophet!" His role as a prophet was unique because God promised his ministry in the Scriptures nearly five hundred years before it began!
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And just pause and let that sink in, dear brothers and sisters. Consider how unique a man it was that first proclaimed the message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand". He was a prophesied prophet, who proclaimed a message unlike any other message, in a way that was outstandingly unique. He was a man set apart by God to point to another Man, and declare that Man to be "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world". What a unique man John was.
You are recipients of the message he proclaimed! You are living today in the times that he declared were "at hand". And every day that goes by brings us closer to the end of that age, and to the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus' coming!
John lived like a man gripped by his own message. Do you live like you have been gripped by it too? Do you follow Jesus with the kind of energy and zeal and self-sacrifice appropriate to the exciting age in which - by God's grace - you live?
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So first, Jesus speaks to the crowd about this great herald of the kingdom - John the Baptist. Second, notice that Jesus speaks to them about . . .
II. THE GREATNESS OF THE KINGDOM (vv. 11-15).
"Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" (Matthew 11:11-15).
Look at that passage. Take careful note of both how it begins and how it ends. It begins with the words, "Assuredly, I say to you . . ."; and those words mark off the rest of what Jesus says in this passage as something very important. Literally, He says, "Amen, I say to you . . ." - which underscores the sober truth of what He is about to say.
And then, He ends what He says with these words, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" - which is something that Jesus said many times in His teaching (Matthew 13:9, 43; Mark 4:9, 23; 7:16; Luke 8:8; 14:35; see also Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 13:9). It identifies what had been said as that which can only be heard and understood through an act of God's grace, and only by those to whom God has given "ears to hear" (Matthew 13:10-17).
These, then, are words of great importance. We should give careful attention to them and humbly seek before God to understand them.
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Now, notice what Jesus says. He says, first, that "among those born of women" - that is, of all those born from within the human family - "there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist." I believe we should take those words at face value. They mean exactly what they say. I don't know who you might put in the category of "the greatest man who was ever born"; but the Son of God here says it was John the Baptist. That pretty much ends the discussion, doesn't it? In other words, out of all people who had been born, none were greater than John! He stood out head and shoulders above the rest of humanity.
And this also places John in the category of being the greatest of all the prophets of the Old Testament era. Jesus says, "For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John" (v. 13). John was the last and greatest of all the prophets of the Old Testament era. All other prophets before John prophesied about Jesus long before He came. They all spoke of the glories of the kingdom from afar. But God gave John the great privilege of being the 'prophesied prophet' who pointed bodily to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and actually, personally "prepare the way" before One who is greater. He told the people,
"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:11-12).
He said of Jesus, "After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before Me" (John 1:30). He said, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). No other prophet was so great a prophet as John! And his greatness was in the privilege he had of pointing immediately to the only one who was greater - the Lord Jesus Christ! He was the herald of the King!
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But all that Jesus tells us about John's greatness was simply to make an even more remarkable point. Jesus says, ". . . [A]mong those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11).
The "kingdom of heaven" is that kingdom which John proclaimed when he announced, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." It is the rule of God over men and women through His King Jesus Christ - a kingdom which commenced when the Son of God came into this world as a Man to die for men; and that will finally be consummated at His return to this earth to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords through those He has redeemed. It's a kingdom that we enter into by faith in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; and that we live today as citizens of through fellowship with Him and obedience to His commands; and that we will one day enjoy the privileges of fully in heavenly glory. And Jesus is letting us know that, as great a man as John the Baptist was in the program of God, he was just the herald of a kingdom to come. The man or woman who is "least" in the kingdom of heaven is greater than even John!
Dear brother or sister; you and I are not greater than John in character and power among men. He was a mighty man. And make no mistake; John is in glory now - beholding the face of Jesus and basking in His glory. But we are greater in terms of our privileges and standing before God than John was in as he walked on this earth. John, you see, was a man of a different era than ours. He as a man of the Old Covenant period - a man born under the Law. But in Christ, we are men and women of the New Covenant period - people who now stand before God by grace through faith; and who now have the law of God in our minds and written in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). We live in "the end of the ages" - under the fulfillment of those things they only spoke of!
Those of the Old Covenant times - of whom John was greatest - lived under the tutelage of the law; but we are sons and daughters who are heirs of that to which the law was meant to lead us (Gal. 3:22-26)! We live in the fulfillment of those things that John and the other prophets before him could only search out and inquire into from a distance (1 Peter 1:10-11). The Holy Spirit only came upon them; but He now dwells within us (Gal. 4:6)! God spoke to them in an incomplete way - only at various times and in various ways; but Has now spoken to us perfectly through His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2)! They spoke prophetic utterances; and we have the prophetic word confirmed (2 Peter 1:19)!
And the least little citizen of the kingdom of Jesus Christ is greater than the greatest prophet of the era that preceded it! What a privilege is ours today! What a wonderful honor it is to be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven through Jesus Christ! What excitement and zeal we ought to exhibit!
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And then we come to a very difficult verse. Jesus then says, "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force" (v. 12). And I hope you don't mind if I take just a moment to explain why it is a difficult verse.
There are two main ways to interpret this verse. And it depends on how you look at the Greek verb that is here translated "suffers violence" ( biazeġ ). Some translators have understood this verb to be translated in what would be called the "passive voice"; that is, that it's describing something that is being done to the kingdom of heaven. That's the way it is being translated, for example, in the New King James Version; that "the kingdom of heaven suffers violence".
If this is the correct way to interpret these words, than this might mean that the kingdom of heaven is being violently attacked in an effort to keep it from spreading - and, of course, that is true. The Lord Jesus used this very same word to say that, whenever the "seed" of the gospel is sown in someone's heart, the devil often comes and "snatches away what was sown (Matthew 13:19). Jesus once rebuked the scribes and Pharisees, saying, "For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in" (Matthew 23:13). Even Paul, on one of his missionary trips, was violently attacked and nearly stoned to death; and afterwards, he would appear in churches on his way home from this journey - all bandaged and broken and limping; and say, "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). When Jesus says, then, that "the violent take" this kingdom "by force", it could be a way of expressing how it suffers attack from its enemies or from those who would seize ahold of it for their own evil ends.
A second way of interpreting this verse, though, interprets that verb in 'the middle voice'; that is, that it is describing an action that the subject of the verb performs on itself. This is the interpretation taken by the New International Version; which reads, "the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it." That would make this a call for you and I, brothers and sisters, to be aggressive in seizing ahold of the kingdom with all our energies - to be forceful in laying hold of it. It would be very much like what Jesus said, in a different context, in Luke 16:16; "The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it."
Now this interpretation was the understanding of a great Puritan preacher named Thomas Watson. He wrote an entire book on this one verse. In it, he wrote, "Our work is great, our time short, our Master urgent. We have need therefore to summon together all the powers of our souls and strive as a matter of life and death, that we may arrive at the kingdom above. We must not only put forth diligence, but violence."2 By this "holy violence", he meant an earnest eagerness for the truth, and a passionate pursuit of our own salvation.
And this, by the way, was how Paul spoke of his own passionate pursuit of the kingdom of heaven. He said,
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
This, in my opinion, fits the context of Jesus' words the best. The kingdom has been offered to the Jewish people; and their King has presented Himself to them. And yet, they are not responding to the offer. And so, this is a warning that a new order of things has arrived. The prophets and the law had preached until John; and during that time, the time of urgency had not arrived. But now, the "end of the ages" has arrived; and the kingdom must be eagerly sought and eagerly seized upon. A man or woman of God must be earnest and zealous and eager. He or she must deny themselves, set all worldly pursuits into second place, and aggressively "seize the kingdom".
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And notice how Jesus further underscores the greatness of the times by telling them one more remarkable thing about John: "And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come" (v. 14).
Jesus was not saying that John was "Elijah reincarnated"; although that's what some thought. Elijah, you might remember, was a prophet who didn't suffer death. Rather, he was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11). And so, because of the power and authority of his preaching - and perhaps even because he dressed like Elijah dressed (2 Kings 1:8) - some suspected that John was somehow the great prophet of the Old Testament come back into the world. They came to John and said, "Are you Elijah?"; but John answered, "I am not" (John 1:21).
Yet, though John was not literally "Elijah", the Bible tells us that he came onto the scene in and went before Jesus "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17). And in our passage this morning, Jesus is saying that John was the fulfillment of the last great prophecy of the Old Testament. In Malachi 4:5-6, it says,
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
The promise was kept; and "Elijah" came in the person of John. The "end of the ages" had come upon them. But the people to whom this promised "Elijah" came rejected the kingdom offer that was being made. Jesus even said, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished" (Matthew 17:11-12).
And again, this encourages us to not respond as the Jewish people did in Jesus' day. We today have the kingdom offered to us! Let's not reject it! Let's not respond in an impassionate manner to the great times in which we live! Let's seize the kingdom!
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So; the great herald of the kingdom came, and this great kingdom was offered. This leads us, finally, to . . .
III. THE REJECTION OF THE KINGDOM (vv. 16-19).
Jesus now brings a strong rebuke to the Jewish people who had rejected the offer of the kingdom. He says,
"But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, and saying:
John was an acetic. He lived in the wilderness, and practiced fasting and self-denial. And the people called him "demonic". They didn't welcome his manner. They couldn't relate to him. By contrast, Jesus was a man among men. He lived in the city; and ate and drank and feasted. He enjoyed people. And the people, in response, called Him a "glutton" and a "wine-bibber" and "a friend of sinners" (although I have to tell you quite personally; I especially appreciate that last insult! I'm very glad He's a friend of sinners!)
The point, of course, was that there was no way to please this crowd! Jesus said that they were like children who play in the market-place - and perhaps he was referencing a children's game that was popular in that time but that has long since been forgotten. One group of kids would play as if they were at a wedding feast; "We played the flute for you"; but the other children wouldn't dance. The other group would play as if they were at a funeral; "We mourned to you"; but the other group of kids would not break-down and cry. They wouldn't play each other's game. And that's how the Jewish people to whom John and our Lord preached were behaving.
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Considering the greatness of the times in which they were living, it was a terrible thing that they would not respond to the offer that was made to them. They would neither mourn nor laugh. They would neither dance nor weep. They had some "excuse" for not wanting what was offered to them.
But look at Jesus' closing words to them. He said, "But wisdom is justified by her children" - or, as some of your translations may have it, "by her works". As the NIV translates it, "But wisdom is proved right by her actions." When the kingdom was being offered, true wisdom would show itself in that the kingdom was received - even eagerly seized upon!
And this points the matter back to you and me, dear brothers and sisters. The kingdom that they rejected is offered to us. These are the greatest days in human history. We are living in "the end of the ages". It's a time to seize the kingdom aggressively.
Do you do so? When was the last time you sought the Lord to reveal some sin in your life you needed to repent of? How long has it been since you shared your faith with someone? What have you done to seize the kingdom lately? What sort of wisdom does your actions reveal?
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And so I ask again, dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Do you realize what a privilege it is that we live in the times in which we live? We live in "the end of the ages". It's a time of great opportunity. But it's a time to seize ahold of the opportunity and live for Christ with all our energies.
I close with an appeal from the apostle Paul. I believe it serves as the perfect call to action:
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts (Romans 13:11-14).
1It's very significant that Jesus quoted Malachi 3:1 in this particular way. The Old Testament passage reads, "Behold, I send My messenger, [a]nd he will prepare the way before Me"; that is, with God speaking of Himself in the first person singular as the direct object of the promised action. But when Jesus Himself quotes it, He changes the direct object to the second person singular - that is, as if the Lord is speaking to someone else. The implication is that Jesus applies this Old Testament prophecy about John's ministry to Himself - making Himself the direct object of God's promise of a 'messenger' in a trinitarian conversation.
2Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm: Showing the Holy Violence A Christian is to Put Forth in the Pursuit After Glory (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), p. 4.
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