Probably no topic is debated and disagreed upon more in Christianity than the second coming of Christ. In my opinion, this confusion is due to a lack of understanding hermeneutics. Christians today simply do not know how to interpret the Scriptures. So, for the next several weeks we are going to be looking at what Matthew has to say about the second coming of Christ.
The first two chapters of Matthew's Gospel deal with events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. Chapter 1 shows that Christ is of the lineage of David and presents Him to be the heir to David's throne. Chapter 2 presents the worship accorded to Him by the wise men from the east who honored Him with gifts befitting One born to rule.
As we come to the events of Matthew 3, Jesus is about 30 years of age. Matthew now wants to present to us the person who has the responsibility to introduce Jesus Christ as the Messiah to the nation Israel. After all, Jesus Christ is the King, the Messiah. As such, it is fitting that He have someone come and announce Him and prepare the way for Him.
Without any background, we have the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets introduced to us in:
Matthew 3:1 (NKJV) In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,
John the Baptist comes on the scene as a prophet of God after 400 years of silence. Let me give you a little background here so you can understand the significance of John's appearance in relation to the second coming.
The Old Testament cannon of Scripture closes with the book of Malachi. The book of Malachi is one long and terrible impeachment of the nation Israel. Malachi is
the prophet of doom. Coming judgement is the burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi:
Malachi 3:5 (NKJV) And I will come near you for judgment; I will be a swift witness Against sorcerers, Against adulterers, Against perjurers, Against those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans, And against those who turn away an alien; Because they do not fear Me," Says the LORD of hosts.
Malachi 4:1 (NKJV) "For behold, the day is coming, Burning like an oven, And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up," Says the LORD of hosts, "That will leave them neither root nor branch.
That this is not a vague and meaningless threat is evident from the distinct and definite terms in which it is announced. Everything points to an approaching crisis in the history of the nation when God would inflict judgment upon His rebellious people. "The day" was coming - the day that shall "burn like an oven". This period is more precisely defined as "the great and dreadful day of the Lord":
Malachi 4:5 (NKJV) Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.
That this "day" refers to a certain period and a specific event, is clear. Jesus tells us that the predicted Elijah that was to come before "the great and dreadful day of the Lord" was John the Baptist:
Matthew 11:14 (NKJV) "And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.
This enables us to determine the time of the event referred to as "the great and dreadful day of the Lord." It must be in the time period of John the Baptist. It seems clear that the allusion is to the judgment of the Jewish nation in A.D. 70, when their city and temple were destroyed, and the entire fabric of Judaism was dissolved.
Malachi represents John as the precursor of the coming Judge:
Malachi 3:1 (NKJV) "Behold, I send My messenger, And he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, Will suddenly come to His temple, Even the Messenger of the covenant, In whom you delight. Behold, He is coming," Says the LORD of hosts.
That this is a coming to judgement is clear from the words which follow describing the alarm and dismay caused by His appearing:
Malachi 3:2 (NKJV) "But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner's fire And like launderer's soap.
This is not talking about Christ's first coming, but His second coming. There is a distinct allusion to this passage in:
Revelation 6:15-17 (NKJV) And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, 16 and said to the mountains and rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 "For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?"
It is clear that the "day of his coming", in Malachi 3:1, is the same as "the great and dreadful day of the Lord", in chap. 4:5, and that both are referring to "'the great day of his wrath" in Revelation 6:17. We can see from this that the prophet Malachi speaks, not of the first coming of our Lord, but of the second. And the second coming is to be in the time period of John the Baptist.
That Malachi is speaking of Christ's second coming is further proved by the significant fact that, in chapter 3:1, the Lord is represented as "suddenly coming to his temple." Which, according to verse 2, is an occasion of terror and dismay, "But who can endure the day of His coming?" This expression speaks of His second coming in judgement. The temple was the center of the nation's life, the visible symbol of the covenant between God and His people; it was the spot where "judgment must begin," and which was to be overtaken by "sudden destruction." So, the sudden coming of the Lord to his temple, the dismay attending the day of his coming, His coming as "a refiner's fire," His coming "near to them to judgment," "the day coming that shall burn as a furnace," "burning up the wicked root and branch," and the appearing of John the Baptist, the second Elijah, previous to the arrival of "the great and dreadful day of the Lord," make it clear that the prophet Malachi here foretells the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, when Christ returned in judgment upon the nation Israel.
We must understand that Malachi's prophecy has a distinct and specific reference to the land of Israel. The message of the prophet is to Israel; the sins which are condemned are the sins of Israel; the coming of the Lord is to His temple in Israel; the land threatened with the curse is the land of Israel. All this points to a specific local and national catastrophe. History records the fulfillment of the prophecy, in exact correspondence of time, place, and circumstance, in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
The four centuries between the conclusion of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New are a blank in Scripture history. During this period, synagogues were established throughout the land, and the knowledge of the Scriptures was widely extended. The great religious schools of the Pharisees and Sadducees arose, both professing to be expounders and defenders of the law of Moses. Above all, the nation cherished the hope of a coming deliverer, an offspring of the royal house of David, who should be the theocratic king, the liberator of Israel from Gentile domination. But, for the most part, the popular conception of the coming king was earthly and carnal. There had not in four hundred years been any improvement in the moral condition of the people, and, between the formalism of the Pharisees and the scepticism of the Sadducees, true religion had sunk to its lowest level. There was still, however, a faithful remnant who had truer conceptions of the kingdom of heaven, and who looked for redemption in Israel. As the time drew near, there were indications of the return of the prophetic spirit, and premonitions that the promised deliverer was at hand. Simeon received assurance that before his death he should see the Lord's anointed; a similar revelation seems to have been made to the aged prophetess, Anna. Such revelations, it is reasonable to suppose, must have awakened eager expectation in the hearts of many and prepared them for the cry which soon after was heard in the wilderness of Judea: "Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" A prophet had again risen up in Israel!
There is nothing more distinctly affirmed in the New Testament than the identity of John the Baptist as the Elijah of Malachi:
Matthew 17:10-12 (NKJV) And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" 11 Jesus answered and said to them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. 12 "But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands." 13 Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.
The disciples knew the prophecy about Elijah, apparently they thought it would be fulfilled physically. It was actually fulfilled, but it was not physically fulfilled. John came in the Spirit of Elijah. Speaking to Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, the angel said:
Luke 1:17 (NKJV) "He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,' and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
The Jews expected the reappearance of the literal Elijah, and John replies to that mistaken notion in:
John 1:21 (NKJV) And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No."
Jesus is telling them if you want to understand the second coming of Elijah, you've got to look at the spiritual.
Matthew 11:13-14 (NKJV) "For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. 14 "And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.
So we see that John the baptizer is the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord.
Matthew 3:1 (NKJV) In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,
He is called "the Baptist" because the key part of his ministry was baptizing people. Those who came to John and heeded his message were baptized by him. Thus he was given the title, "John the Baptist".
John was preaching "in the wilderness of Judea" - a phrase indicating the rolling bad lands between the hill country of Judea to the west and the Dead Sea and the lower Jordan to the east, stretching northward to about the point where the Jabbok flows into the Jordan. It is a desolate expanse of barren chalky soil covered with pebbles, broken stones, and rocks.
Interestingly, John did not go into the city of Jerusalem. You would think that one coming with a message to proclaim the introduction of the King of Israel would go to the capital, perhaps even to the temple, to make his proclamation. But that is not the case. He went to the wilderness, and the people flocked to him in order to hear him. His ministry of preaching indicates he was a herald, one who is given a message to proclaim or announce. John was given the ministry of announcing the coming and presence of Jesus Christ.
John comes preaching with a proclamation:
Matthew 3:2 (NKJV) and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"
John told them that the reason it was so crucial for them to repent was because "...the kingdom of heaven is at hand," an expression meaning that it is drawing near. The same expression is used later in the Gospel as Jesus was drawing near to Jerusalem. It indicates that something is on the verge of coming. It is close. John is telling them that they need to repent, because this kingdom is at hand - a kingdom which will be set up by the Messiah.
The Jews all were familiar with this from the Old Testament Scriptures. They knew that the first thing which would occur in that kingdom would be a judgment of those who have not repented. They were so familiar with those facts that John did not even have to go into the details from the Old Testament. They knew that the kingdom would be set up by the Messiah, who would begin by judging the rebels in the nation and excluding them from His kingdom.
Matthew describes the appearance of John, and even his dress is reminiscent of a prophetic ministry:
Matthew 3:4 (NKJV) And John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.
John is identified as a prophet, especially with the ministry of Elijah. Elijah's ministry to Ahaziah is recorded in 2 Kings 1. The king was ill following an injury and decided to inquire from the false gods if he was going to recover from his illness. But Elijah, the prophet of God, intercepted his message:
2 Kings 1:3-4 (NKJV) But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, "Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, 'Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?' 4 "Now therefore, thus says the LORD: 'You shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.' " So Elijah departed.
After Ahaziah was told that he would die, the king asked for a description of the man who gave the message regarding death:
2 Kings 1:8 (NKJV) So they answered him, "A hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist." And he said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite."
Since the prophet has a hairy garment bound with a leather girdle about the waist, the king immediately recognizes this as the dress of the prophet Elijah. So when Matthew describes the dress of John, he identifies him as a prophet in connection with Elijah's ministry.
After describing John's clothing and diet in verse 4, Matthew proceeds to describe the response of the people to his message in:
Matthew 3:5 (NKJV) Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him
In order to understand the significance of what was happening, it is important to picture this tremendous scene. Some commentators estimate that there could have been between 200,000 and 500,000 people who participated in John's ministry in this way. Matthew is not describing the appearance of a half dozen people who followed John. This prophet came on the scene in such a striking way that after the Spirit of God had prepared the people's hearts, the whole nation recognized John as a prophet, and the leaders even feared him after his death because of the people's high regard for him as a prophet.
In Matthew 3:7, John begins to confront the religious leaders of his day. The two groups of leaders in Israel were known as the Pharisees and the Sadducees. This is their first appearance in Matthew's Gospel where they are seen as religious hypocrites. Matthew wrote:
Matthew 3:7 (NKJV) But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
John, dressed as a prophet with the message of a prophet, came with the same approach the prophets had.
The Pharisees and Sadducees had great pride in their religious traditions. The Pharisees were the conservatives of the nation. They were traditionalists and separatists. They did not believe in mixing Judaism with the Greek culture, but rather thought that the Jews ought to remain a distinct group of people separated from everyone and everything else. The Pharisees were the guardians of the Scriptures, but they believed in the Scripture in addition to oral traditions which they believed had been passed on from Moses. As is always the case, when there are people who have an allegiance both to the Scriptures and to traditions, the traditions soon supersede the Scriptures.
In contrast to the Pharisees were the Sadducees. They were the non-supernaturalists. A little saying which will help you keep the Pharisees and Sadducees distinct in your mind is related to the belief of the Sadducees: The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, so they were "sad, you see." Neither did the Sadducees believe in the spirit world. They did not even believe in life after death, yet the Sadducees were the high-priestly party. Though they were the smaller group in Israel, the Sadducees controlled the priesthood, because the office of the high priest was occupied by the Sadducees. How amazing! The high priests of the nation Israel did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, in angelic beings, or in life after death.
John addressed them as a "brood of vipers" (Matt. 3:7). Vipers were poisonous snakes. Near the end of the Book of Acts, Paul was gathering sticks to build a fire, and a viper came out and grasped onto him. Since vipers were very poisonous snakes, the individuals with Paul expected him to drop over dead immediately. The interesting thing about these snakes was that they could look like a stick or twig in the desert, but without warning they would strike out with their venom.
John told those religious leaders that they were just like vipers - they were deceptive! They looked so harmless, but in reality they were deadly. Such charges from John were tremendously offensive for the Pharisees and Sadducees, who prided themselves on being so far above the common people.
Speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees, John said, "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" The words "to come" are from the Greek word mello. The Greek verb "mello" means: (in the infinitive) "to be about to", and "be on the point of" (see Thayer, Arndt & Gingrich, New Englishman's Greek Concordance and Harper's Analytical Greek Lexicon). So, John is saying to his first century audience, "Who warned you to flee from the wrath about to come?" The wrath that John was talking about was the destruction of Jerusalem.
John was trying to teach them that physical relationships were inadequate. John put his finger right on the problem in:
Matthew 3:9 (NKJV) "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.
These Jews had been taught and had believed that every physical descendant of Abraham was going into the kingdom. Therefore, all they had to do to make sure they were going into the kingdom was to trace their lineage back to Abraham. But John informed them that being a physical descendant of Abraham has nothing to do with getting into the kingdom. God could even turn stones into children of Abraham if He wanted to. John was telling them that they had no more chance than stones of getting in just because of their relationship to Abraham.
What I want you to see this morning is that at the heart of John's message was the theme of coming judgment. John announced in verse 2 that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, meaning it was very near. The kingdom of heaven will be ushered in with a time of judgment. John speaks of that judgment in:
Matthew 3:10 (NKJV) "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.
In order for the kingdom to be consummated, there must be a time of judgment. The axe is there at the root ready to cut down any tree that is not bearing good fruit. John places an emphasis on fire again in verses 11 and 12. In those verses, there is a reference to the coming destruction.
Several Old Testament prophets predicted judgment preceding the glory of the kingdom, and that is why John is warning that the axe is at the root of the tree. Because of the teaching of the prophets, the Jews were well aware that the kingdom was to be ushered in by judgment. Isaiah wrote:
Isaiah 4:4-5 (NKJV) When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the blood of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning, 5 then the LORD will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night. For over all the glory there will be a covering.
The order is first judgment, then glory.
Ezekiel wrote about bringing the nation Israel back and establishing them in the kingdom:
Ezekiel 34:16 (NKJV) "I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment."
The fat and the strong have been feeding on the weak, so they will face God's judgment. Judgment is the key element.
Malachi, the last prophet in Israel until the time of John the Baptist, prophesied of judgment and burning:
Malachi 4:1-2 (NKJV) "For behold, the day is coming, Burning like an oven, And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up," Says the LORD of hosts, "That will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But to you who fear My name The Sun of Righteousness shall arise With healing in His wings; And you shall go out And grow fat like stall-fed calves.
In these passages, it is hard to miss the emphasis on judgement.
The Jews of John's day knew these prophecies of the Old Testament. They understood that before the kingdom would be consummated, God's judgment would fall on unbelievers, who would be rooted out of the kingdom as the Messiah established His rule and reign.
Matthew 3:11 (NKJV) "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.
The baptism with fire, which John mentions in verse 11, is the judgment that John elaborates in verse 12:
Matthew 3:12 (NKJV) "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."
The winnowing fork was a wooden instrument used to throw the grain into the air. The wind would then blow away the lighter chaff, and the good grain would fall down to the floor. The winnower threw the grain and chaff up into the air until all the chaff had blown away. That is the picture John is describing here where the Messiah "will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor" (v.12). In other words, He will winnow the grain until all the chaff is gone. The judgment will be thorough and complete, "and He will gather His wheat into the barn". Then the warning again, "but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire". Judgment Precedes the Kingdom.
In Matthew 13, Jesus explained the parable of the wheat and the tares. This passage is preparatory to the setting up of the kingdom where the angels will come and remove the wicked. This is paralleled in Matthew 24 when two shall be in the fields, one will be taken and one is left. In that context, the one taken is the one taken in judgment.
Matthew 13:41-42 (NKJV) "The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, 42 "and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Verses 49 and 50 continue:
Matthew 13:49-50 (NKJV) "So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, 50 "and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth."
When does Jesus say that the angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire? He says it will happen "at the end of the age". The KJV wrongly translates this: "the end of the world." But the Bible does not talk about the end of the world. The great majority of people, both Christian and non-Christian, think the Bible teaches that the world will end. The end of the world is the theme of many books and movies, and there are endless predictions as to when and how it will end. We are constantly told that the world will get worse until God destroys it. But this is not a Biblical teaching. The Bible teaches the exact opposite:
Genesis 8:21-22 (NKJV) And the LORD smelled a soothing aroma. Then the LORD said in His heart, "I will never again curse the ground for man's sake, although the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done. 22 "While the earth remains, Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Winter and summer, And day and night Shall not cease."
Now, folks will say that the Lord destroyed the earth by water one time, and He'll destroy it by fire the next time. Is God's promise here to just change his method of destroying everything? Is there comfort in being destroyed by fire instead of water? Or is He promising not to destroy the earth again?
Psalms 148:4-6 (NKJV) Praise Him, you heavens of heavens, And you waters above the heavens! 5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, For He commanded and they were created. 6 He also established them forever and ever; He made a decree which shall not pass away.
What decree did God make concerning the establishment of the heaven and the earth that will never pass away? Could it be Genesis 8:21? God said that he would never again destroy every living thing. God can be trusted, He keeps his word.
Psalms 78:69 (NKJV) And He built His sanctuary like the heights, Like the earth which He has established forever.
If God has established the earth forever, how could it end?
Psalms 119:90 (NKJV) Your faithfulness endures to all generations; You established the earth, and it abides.
Ecclesiastes 1:4 (NKJV) One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.
It sounds like these verses teach that the earth will last forever.
The word translated "world" in the KJV is the Greek word "aion", which means: "age, dispensation, era, or a period of time." We can understand that an age can end, and yet the world can still go on. The Bible talks about the "end of the age" but never the "end of the world".
To the Jews, time was divided into two great periods, the Mosaic Age and the Messianic Age. The Messiah was viewed as one who would bring in a new world. The period of the Messiah was, therefore, correctly characterized by the Synagogue as "the world to come." All through the New Testament we see two ages in contrast: "This age" and the "age to come."
Matthew 12:32 (NKJV) "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.
So, the age that was to end was the Jewish age. It would end with the destruction of the Jewish temple and the city Jerusalem. The end of the age did not happen at the cross or at Pentecost but at the destruction of Jerusalem. The world was not going to end, but the age of Judaism was. The disciples knew that the fall of the temple and the destruction of the city meant the end of the Old Covenant age and the inauguration of a new age.
J. Stuart Russell writes:
These warnings of John the Baptist are not the vague and indefinite exhortations to repentance, addressed to men in all ages, which they are sometimes assumed to be; they are urgent, burning words, having a specific and present bearing upon the then existing generation, the living men to whom he brought the message of God. The Jewish nation was now upon its last trial; the second Elijah had come as the precursor of 'the great and dreadful day of the Lord:' if they rejected his warnings, the doom predicted by Malachi would surely and speedily follow; 'I will come and smite the land with the curse.' Nothing can be more obvious than that the catastrophe to which John alludes is particular, national, local, and imminent, and history tells us that within the period of the generation that listened to his warning cry, 'the wrath came upon them to the uttermost."
John's message is one of judgment and it is to first century Israel! Messiah, the judge, is coming, repent! The coming of Christ is not in our future but in our past. Christ returned in A.D. 70 bringing judgement upon the nation Israel and bringing in the kingdom of God.
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