John the Baptist’s message contained three parts, according to Matthew (3.1-17): (1) a warning, (2) a promise, and (3) a demand.

The most unusual feature of John’s preaching was his announcement that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. This phrase, the “kingdom of heaven,” is used thirty-two times in Matthew’s Gospel, and this is its first occurrence. It has its roots in the Old Testament prophecies of a coming messianic king and points to a place or time in which God will specifically reign or rule.

Because Matthew uses the words “kingdom of heaven” while Mark and Luke refer to the “kingdom of God,” some commentators have understood Mark’s and Luke’s words to refer to a distinctly spiritual kingdom consisting of true believers in Christ and Matthew’s words to refer to the messianic kingdom that is to be set up on earth when Jesus returns a second time in glory. As a result of this distinction, dispensationalists treat Matthew as a uniquely Jewish Gospel in which an earthly millennial kingdom was first offered to the Jewish people and rejected by them. Therefore, the “kingdom of heaven” was postponed, and the Gospel of salvation through Christ replaced it for this current Church age.

This is a false distinction, as most commentators recognize. Jesus did not offer a millennial kingdom (plan A) and then move to the Gospel of grace (plan B) when the first plan was rejected. Nor are the ethics of the kingdom for an age other than our own. The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are the same reality. Why then does Matthew prefer “kingdom of heaven” to “kingdom of God” as his characteristic phrase? The answer is surely because (1) this was a Jewish way of speaking (the word heaven was often substituted for the word God, which the Jews were reluctant to pronounce), and (2) the phrase “kingdom of heaven” suggests that the kingdom is also of Jesus the Son, rather than only the reign of God the Father.

Both these phrases are broad terms, having to do with the reign or rule of God. In one sense the entire universe is God’s kingdom, because God is everywhere the sovereign God. In a more restricted sense, the kingdom of heaven (or God) is the place at which God rules in the lives of his redeemed people. The ethics of the kingdom are for these elect and redeemed people. In the situation presented in Matthew 3, the kingdom of heaven is at hand because Jesus Christ, the King of kings, was on earth and was about to be revealed to humankind.

But why was the announcement of the nearness of the kingdom a warning? Because one of the King’s roles would be that of judge. Just as the Old Testament prophets warned that “the day of the Lord” would be a time of judgment as well as blessing, John also warned that the coming of the kingdom would be a revelation of God’s wrath against the ungodly. John said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? … The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

It is true that Jesus did not come as the judge on this occasion. The final judgment will occur when He appears the second time. But His coming was nevertheless a true judgment, because it compels men and women to take sides either with or against Him. John said, “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor, gathering His wheat into His barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (v.12).

The second important part of John the Baptist’s teaching is what we have already anticipated in speaking of the coming of the kingdom of heaven: The King Himself was coming. In fact, He was already on earth.

John did not know who the Messiah was at this point, because he had not received the sign that would identify him. He said, “I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’” But when Jesus was pointed out to John as the one expected, John identified Him first as to His person (“the Son of God,”) and second as to His saving work (“the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,”). This is exactly what we have to proclaim about Jesus Christ today: who He is and what He has done. It is the essence of the Christian Gospel.

The last main point of John’s message according to Matthew (as well as Mark and Luke, but not John) was repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is a powerful demand. The Hebrew word for repentance (meaning “to turn”) is more than simply having a change of mind or even being sorry for one’s sins. The Greek word means “to have a change of mind,” and the Hebrew word means chiefly “to be sorry.” But John’s call for repentance meant more than this, which he showed by accusing the Pharisees and Sadducees of an outward and thus inadequate repentance only. John was demanding a radical change of life.

When asked about repentance, one little girl defined it best when she said, “It’s being sorry enough to quit.”

Repentance presupposes that our lives are off course and we need to turn them around. But it also points us in the direction of the Savior, who alone is able to make atonement for our sins.