Matthew Chapters 3 & 4 – Trust our trustworthy God

Matthew Chapters 3 & 4 – Trust our trustworthy God

When did you last forget about something on your ministry to-do list? How often do you have to postpone something at the last minute? As flawed creatures, we know that even the best of us are still unreliable. We make promises and we plan to honour them but, sadly, we sometimes fail to keep them. But Matthew 3-4 reminds us that God always delivers. That is the main thing to see in this next section of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew 1-2 revealed the staggering and subversive way in which God sent his Son in the flesh to be born as a human being. He then develops that in chapters 3-4 to remind us that God always keeps his promises.  

In our EPW preaching conferences, we often consider the historical context of the passage we are preaching. Matthew wrote 30 years after Jesus’ death and although the church had grown around the Mediterranean, not much else had changed. The Romans were still in charge. Christians were still unpopular with almost everyone. Any possibility that Jesus would return quickly to sort out the world and to establish the new creation was quickly fading. God’s people would need to wait patiently. So, Matthew writes his gospel to enable them to wait well. How? By reassuring them that, although the Lord seems to time to take a long time, God always comes through in the end. And we can see that at the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry. 

1. Our God always keeps his word… 

Matthew 3 opens with John the Baptist announcing the arrival of the kingdom (3:1-6). It is momentous news. But it isn’t new. It was promised in 2 Samuel 7, where God said he would set up one of David’s descendants as the eternal king of an everlasting kingdom. Now there was a delay of about 1,000 years before it happened. But it did happen. And the Baptist’s announcement starts by saying that this is the fulfilment of that long-promised kingdom. And suddenly the fulfilment language is everywhere. Did you notice? There is Isaiah’s promise 800 years before of a voice crying in the wilderness preparing the way for God’s Messiah (v3, cf. Isa 40:3). And this herald echoes Elijah’s diet, appearance and ministry picking up the promise of Malachi some 400 years earlier (v4 cf. Malachi 4:5-6). God kept those promises.  

John had a great impact as all those in Jerusalem and Judea went out to him and many were baptised by him (v5-6). But John knew he was only a forerunner. He picks up Old Testament promises about the Spirit and wants us to see that they are all being fulfilled in Jesus’ arrival, which is marked by an outpouring of salvation by the life-giving Spirit (3:11-12, cf. Isaiah 11, Ezekiel 36, Joel 2). But John also picks up the resounding note of the OT that when Messiah comes, he will also deliver on God’s promise of judgement. Do you see? Matthew wants us to see that the promised Elijah-like herald is here – just as God said. The Spirit is about to be poured out in salvation and judgement – just as God said. And now the Son of God, the promised eternal King and Servant of Yahweh himself has come – just as God said (3:13). Matthew wants us to know that our God always keeps his promises.  

2. …often in unexpected ways 

But as we have already seen in chapters 1-2, such fulfilment may unfold in unexpected ways. At our preaching conferences, pastors are urged to look for surprises in the scriptures. And the big surprise in this passage is Jesus’ baptism (3:13-17). Given what John had said, it is no surprise that he tries to stop Jesus being baptised (v11-14). John knew that he was calling people in the desert to make a decisive admission that they were broken and needed God’s help. No wonder he hesitated when Jesus, his second cousin, joined the line and stepped down into the river. He somehow knows that Jesus is God’s Messiah and that he will be the one who will judge and save in the power of the Spirit. How on earth can Jesus be baptised by John? Well, notice Jesus’ response in v15, which is unique to Matthew’s Gospel, ‘“Let it be so for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.”’ Jesus admits his baptism is exceptional but he urges John to allow it as a one-off. Why? Because what they do together in the River Jordan is obviously a big part of the fulfilment of God’s rescue plan.  

What is Jesus doing here? Well, he is identifying with people like us. It shouldn’t surprise us, of course, after what we saw in Matthew 1 where our God came to be Immanuel, to be with us in the mess. And so, the King who dies at Calvary on a cross between criminals starts his earthly ministry in a river amongst sinful human beings. Jesus is convinced that to live for us and die for us, to rise for us and give us life, he must stand with us. He must be one of us to share his righteousness with us. And no sooner is Jesus baptised by John and climbs back up the bank, then his heavenly father intervenes and the Spirit descends and God declares that Jesus is his long-promised Son (3:16-17, cf. Gen 1, Isa 11, Pss 2 & 89, 2 Sam 7 and Isa 42). Matthew doesn’t tell us who heard these words, what the Spirit looked like or how people reacted because they are not his concern. His focus is on Jesus. He uses all these Old Testament hints and echoes to prove that God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ. Matthew wants us to trust our trustworthy God because He always keeps his word.  

3. …and against all opposition 

And if we needed confirmation, we get it in chapter 4:1-11. There is much that can be said of Jesus’ temptation narratives but in the flow of Matthew’s argument, the main thing he wants to underline is that nothing can deflect God from keeping his promises, not even the devil. Immediately after his heavenly father’s declaration and the Spirit’s descent, Jesus faces a direct confrontation with the evil one at the site of Israel’s dreadful failure after the exodus. Like Israel, Jesus is in the wilderness. Like Moses and Elijah, he fasts for 40 days and 40 nights. And the devil tries to derail Jesus’ mission as the Son of God and promised Davidic King, encouraging him to make life easy for himself, to focus on himself and to grab power for himself (4:3, 5-6, 8-9). The evil one is deceitful enough to use scripture to upset God’s plan but God’s King will not be deflected. Three times Jesus quotes from God’s word as he faces down the devil (4:4, 7, 10, cf. Deut 8:3; 6:16,13). He will not be distracted or deflected. Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise because God always keeps his promises, a point reiterated in 4:12f. The arrest and imprisonment of John the Baptist was really bad news. It would have seemed like a crisis for the kingdom. But Matthew wants us to see that all it succeeds in doing is to launch the next phase of God’s rescue plan from the unlikely melting pot of Galilee … just as the Lord had promised 800 years earlier in Isaiah 9.  

Yes, God works at his own pace. Yes, it may seem as if his kingdom sometimes stumbles and suffers setbacks. But as we will hear Jesus say later in this gospel, God is building his church and even the gates of hell cannot prevent it. Our God always delivers. That was true when Jesus began his public ministry and it is true today. Indeed, one of the reasons why this Gospel is so helpful for us today is that, just like his first readers, we are still waiting. And grasping Matthew’s message will help us to hold on to the solid hope that Jesus our king will return in triumph to judge the living and the dead. Persevering isn’t easy. It is hard to hold on to hope as we live in a society deeply sceptical about Christ’s claims. It is difficult to endure because our world wants us to imagine that we’re masters of our own destiny and we will never have to answer to anyone, let alone a returning King. But Matthew reminds us that, although it may take a while and happen in unexpected ways, God always keeps his word. What God says, he does. He always has and he always will. Matthew wants to show us again and again and again that God is utterly, unflappably and unshakeably trustworthy. 

It is humbling to hear of some of the challenges faced by pastors served by EPW. It is thrilling to hear testimonies of how they trust God in crisis, in real hardship or persecution. But it is also heartening to hear pastors trust the Lord in the more ordinary trials of teaching God’s word, loving the church and reaching the lost. I guess we can all recall times when God has kept his promises to us, providing us more and more reasons for us to trust him. But God has already given us the greatest demonstration of his trustworthiness in the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. I do not know what is on your mind at the moment. It may be financial challenges, family issues or health worries. You may feel anxious or lonely or overwhelmed. Your head may be full of fears about the future or regrets about the past. They are real and can be very depressing. But none of them can rattle the rock-solid reliability of our God, Father, Son and Spirit. Trust our trustworthy God. 

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