The 'interface' between the old and new covenantsIn the UK, our met office recently began giving storms names – similar to what the US do with hurricanes. As I write, we’ve just had Henry, Imogen and Jake. The idea, I believe, is to make the threatened public more aware of the ‘character’ – and thus the danger – these storms pose to us. This begs the question ‘what qualifies as a storm’. One dictionary definition is ‘a violent disturbance in weather’. This gave rise to another use - some soldiers or warriors who displayed great ferocity in battle being described as ‘stormers’ – Star Wars has borrowed the term from elsewhere, and it has become ‘storm troopers’. And when a city or castle was besieged in a fierce, fast onslaught designed to quickly overwhelm – that was ‘storming’.
Jesus spoke of the ‘storming’ of the kingdom of heaven.
As recorded in Matthew 11, He had just received a deputation from the imprisoned John the Baptist, asking was He really the Christ, or was it to be someone else they should look for. Whether John asks for himself, for reassurance, or whether he was seeking to establish truth for his disciples is unclear. Jesus’ response is to send them back with the witness of their own eyes – the signs of the Messiah:
“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11 vs 4 – 6)
Mostly referring to Isaiah 35 and 61, Jesus simply lists what the prophet said would be the indications that Messiah had come. This, they were witnessing. But, after the departure of John’s commissioned representatives, Jesus goes on to speak to the crowd about John. He appears to want to make it very clear just who John is, as well as to make it very clear to John just who he is. He begins with a challenge:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.””(Matthew 11 vs 7 – 10)
The quote is from Malachi 3. John as well as Jesus has been promised, as the forerunner sent to prepare the way for the Messiah to come. Jesus sets a challenge. When the people had heard of the preaching of John in the wilderness, why had they gone chasing out into the middle of nowhere to hear him? What had they expected? A purely natural phenomena (hardly worth a desert journey), or a regal figure (looking in the wrong place for that)? Oh, they were looking for a prophet. God had not spoken by a prophet to Israel for 400 years – Malachi had actually been the last one. So little wonder that they were excited. Jesus wants them to be certain that John was not only ‘a prophet’, he was ‘THAT’ prophet – the ‘Elijah’ who had been promised (vs14). Now, here is the distinguishing teaching. And the hardest part of this portion to understand. Jesus says:
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” (vs 11 – 14)
Jesus does not denigrate John, or look down on him in any way. The difference the Lord identifies here is one of role, not person. John’s ruthless truth ministry, and his faithfulness to his calling is unblemished. Even to the last, where he ‘beards the lion’, challenging a corrupt ruler (Herod, who had taken his own brother’s wife for himself) in his own palace, John is God’s man. And to the end, where, having been chosen all his days to surrender his heart for God, and for his Messiah, ‘the Baptist’ is then called to surrender his head, John remains constant.
The last law Prophet“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.”
First, note that Jesus groups John with all of the forward-looking prophecy of the whole Old Testament – the Law and the Prophets. John is an anointed (with the Spirit, from before he was born) prophet from a Levitical (priestly) family. But instead of serving in the Temple, as his father did, John serves in the wilderness – where the Law came from. ‘All the Prophets and the Law prophesied … UNTIL John’. John is the last of the line. Equally inspired, equally authoritative as the bringer of God’s words, John is the last of the line. Something crucial is about to change.
The greatest of the great“… for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. “ (Luke 1 vs 15)
Second, note the Lord’s high consideration of this man – the son of His mother’s cousin. There is none greater in his ‘class’ – he excels them all. The Spirit anointed the prophets of old when they were prepared and equipped to bring His word. But He came and went. The purpose of the anointing was to empower them to prophesy. But John was filled with the Holy Spirit before birth – before he could even speak (Luke 1 vs 15). And this is testified to by his pre-natal acknowledgement of His Lord:
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 1 vs 41)
(Share with me, for a moment, in that. Here are these two women, the one old and very pregnant, the other very young and just pregnant, having a praise party together in the light of their unborn sons, and THEIR relationship. There is something ‘weirdly wonderful’ in that, is there not?)
He(John) IS ‘the Elijah who is to come’ My bet is that Jesus’ mother, Mary, had passed on to Jesus the story of Elizabeth, John’s mother. He would have known about God’s prophecy, from the mouth of the angel, to John’s father:
“… And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1 vs 17)
And of course, in any case, as the Christ, Jesus would have been fully aware of God’s purpose and intention in the ministry of John. How could the ‘forerunnee’ not know what His ‘forerunner’ was about?
The Siege of heavenWhat, then, is this talk of ‘violent people’ and the siege of heaven’s kingdom? Who is it who dares storm heaven – apparently with the blessing of Jesus Himself? What can this be about? What is Jesus saying? There is only one conclusion I can reach. But before I tell you what that is, I want to trace how I get there.
- As the old covenant is replaced – made obsolete, the book of Hebrews tells us – by the new, there has to be an ‘interface’ between the two. By which I mean a ‘meeting point’ where the old covenant becomes the new. I believe this happens in the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ before the cross.
- In John the Baptist we have the ultimate representative of the old covenant. He is both priest and prophet. He is filled with the Spirit, even more so than Elijah had been before him, in an extraordinary way. And the old covenant prophets, of course, were preachers of the Law, every one of them.
- Because John is appointed by God in his ministry of preaching the Law, and the due repentance it should lead to (which is as far as the Law could go before the Messiah came), yet he is ‘the end of the line’ for the old covenant, he himself is a ‘shadow’. He bodily represents what now must be replaced by promised ‘substance’ – Christ.
"The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less" (John 3 vs 29, 30)
… John is not merely speaking of his own ministry giving way to that of Christ, he is prophetically speaking of the Law giving way to Gospel; the old covenant being surpassed by the new.
Thus we see, here, that what is taking place is a kind of on-the-spot typology, with the type and its anti-type in the frame at the same time. Thus, we are given to better understand what Jesus is talking about when He says:
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”
You will notice three time frames:
- Before John (‘the Elijah who was to come’)
- From John to Jesus (‘until now’)
- After Jesus (inferred)
‘Before’, Jesus says, all the prophets and the Law prophesied. And there was the promise of ‘another Elijah’. Then John appears as that promised, special forerunner of Messiah.
‘After’, Jesus gives us no more information here.
But in between – this is where this intriguing description is given.
What is happening in this interlude? No doubt, it is referring to the earthly ministry of both John and Jesus, and the overlap between those ministries. The ‘baptism of repentance’ is being replaced by the ‘baptism of faith for the forgiveness of sins’. Jesus’ disciples are baptising more people than John did – even John’s own disciples are following Him (John ch 4). What is happening?
The covenant people of Israel are ‘migrating’ from the Law to the Lord; from the old to the new.
And I think this is what Jesus describes. That this transition is a violent upheaval. That what was defended as unapproachable by the Law is now accessible.
It is as if the city has been sieged. The battering rams have been at the gates – pounding and pounding and pounding. And eventually, the gates have given way and been burst wide open. Now – ah, now – the warriors stream into the city to take possession of that which they could not before. The city is theirs, as they take it by force.
This an astounding picture, is it not? In the hearts of those who have heard the Saviour’s word, and have come to know and believe that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God, there is a boldness, a ruthless daring which lays a hold now on that which previously they could not even touch. See these ‘kingdom invaders’ flood into the kingdom, through those Christ-opened gates, which will never be closed to them again. See the former timidity, hesitance, fear .. dissolved and disappearing as they discover, in their hearts of faith, now no resistance to their approach to God Himself. And as they take up, with both hands, eagerly, joyfully, these promises of God in the very person of His own Son, they are, at the last, inside the kingdom. And not only inside, they are citizens of it.
Elsewhere, Jesus describes this termination of the ‘rule’ of the old covenant as an axe having been laid to the tree. It is in the process, even as He teaches, of being chopped down. And in its place – the True Vine. But this is upheaval, a tumultuous business. There is devastation and there is a ‘violent’ change. So this is the beginning. The refugees who have been under that crippling burden of Law for so long are coming home. As they discover the One to whom it pointed, little wonder that they flee to Him with such passion – such violent intent to secure and appropriate what the promises of God had been all about all along. The glory of Christ!