“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea saying, ‘Repent! Because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.’"
Matthew shifts from Jesus growing up in Nazareth to John the Baptist in Judea. The phrase “in those days” refers to the days in which Jesus is fulfilling the collective argument of the prophets by becoming known as a “Nazarene” (2:23). John the Baptist is certainly a dynamic character in the Biblical storyline but is not readily understood. His name means “gift from Yhwh” and was as popular in the 1st century of Palestine as it is today. Many consider him to be the last of the Old Testament prophets, yet his ministry is tightly connected with the coming of Messiah. John has many similarities with the prophets of old, yet his message is unique. He does not foresee Messiah’s coming but proclaims that Messiah has already arrived. He does not provide instruction regarding the coming kingdom but preaches the nearness of that kingdom. In addition to the uniqueness of his message, John also administers a strange and new religious rite that we have not yet encountered in Scripture. It seems as if John’s Levitical heritage comes into play while he functions not only as a preacher and a prophet, but also as a priest. As Matthew introduces John the Baptist and his ministry (3:1-12), he first focuses on three aspects of John’s ministry (vv. 1-6). John is introduced as a preacher with a new message (vv. 1-2), a prophet with an old expectation (vv. 3-4), and a priest with a new rite (vv. 5-6). For now, we will examine John as preacher and the message that he proclaimed.
John the Preacher (vv. 1-2)
It is important to note purposeful connection back to chapter 2. When Matthew begins 3:1 with “in those days” he is making a connection to the time Jesus spent in Nazareth. The scene is changing, but many of the themes that have been introduced will continue to be developed. One of the chief themes that bleeds over into chapter 3 is that of a second Exodus. This is brought out implicitly be examining where John preached and what John preached.
Where He Preached (v. 1)
“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea”
We must note two things from the onset: (1) John is so eternally connected to the rite of baptism that he is provided the surname “Baptist” and (2) John’s activity of baptism is not Matthew’s primary concern.
Of the many Johns mentioned in the Bible (John the Baptist, John the disciple, John the father of Peter (Jn. 1:42), John Mark (Acts 12:12), John a member of the priesthood (Acts 4:6)) this John is distinguished as “the Baptist.” Even the secular ancient historian Josephus refers to John as “who was called the Baptist.” While Matthew does eventually address John’s ministry of baptizing, initially he is concerned with John as a preacher. If the intention is to present John as bursting forth upon the scene (in those days, John came) then it is important to understand that John bursts forth in the act of preaching or proclaiming a message (κηρύσσων). The act of preaching (κηρύσσω) is to fulfill the role of a herald (κῆρυξ), one commissioned by an authority to proclaim a specific message. There is no room for improvement or improvisation in the role of a herald. A herald (κῆρυξ) has a script that he must stick to or else he is presenting his own words rather than the words of his master. It would make sense that a herald would arrive where people can hear this message, yet John arrived preaching in the wilderness.
“The wilderness of Judea” refers to the stretch of land south of Jerusalem and west of the Jordan River. While suitable for grazing except for the dry season, this country had little use for agriculture due to its steep topography and lack of water. This area held little in the way of population and much in the way of harshness. This arid wilderness served as the location for John’s preaching. Rather than going with God’s message to the people, John preaches in the wilderness and calls the people out to the desert. Why? Because the wilderness is tied to the biblical expectation of a new Exodus (Hos. 2:14-23; Ezek. 20:33-38).
The wilderness is not the Promised Land. The wilderness marks a place where the people are forced to rely upon God and trust Him. The wilderness marks the beginning of something that leads to profound blessing. This wilderness motif fits perfectly with Matthew’s theme of a second Exodus. This motif grows in significance when we consider the location of John’s Baptism, i.e., the Jordan River in the south of Judea. This exodus in the wilderness finds its way to the fords of the Jordan so that a new conquest might begin. Israel’s new beginning is gaining traction and John’s location has been carefully selected to drive home the point that the Exodus is about to begin. But before there can be the blessings that come with a successful conquest, something else must happen. The people need to repent.
What He Preached (v. 2)
“Saying, ‘Repent! Because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.’”
John came preaching a very simple message with two parts. First, the command to repent (μετανοεῖτε) comes in the form of a present imperative (be repenting) which implies an ongoing rather than a single and decisive action. The term demands more than a feeling of remorse (being sorry), a change of mind, change of conduct, regret, or remorse. The concept presented in the Greek verb μετανοέω is a combination of the ideas found in the Hebrew terms נחם (to regret/be sorry) and שׁוּב (to turn/return/turn around). The idea is a complete change of mind, will, and action. The entire person is changed: (a) changing one’s mind regarding a course of action, (b) changing one’s desire regarding the will for such action, and (c) changing one’s actions as he ceases doing what is wrong and begins doing what is right. Second, the command to repent is followed by a reason. The Greek conjunction γὰρ is causal here, explaining the reason (because) why John’s hearers should repent. It is not uncommon for the prophets of old to demand repentance from the people. In fact, in the context of the prophets calling the people to return or repent back to God, the imperative of שׁוּב appears with some frequency (Is. 31:6; 44:22; Jer. 3:12, 14, 22; 18:11; 25:5; 31:21; 35:15; Ezek. 14:6; 18:30, 32; 33:11; Hos. 14:1-2; Joel 2:12-13; Zech. 1:3-4; Mal. 3:7). But what makes this call to repentance unique is the fact that it is given in light of the greatly anticipated kingdom. There are at least three questions that must be answered: (1) What does Matthew mean by “the kingdom of heaven”? (2) What is the precise meaning of ἤγγικεν (it is at hand/it has come near)? (3) What is the connection between the kingdom and the command to repent?
The Kingdom of Heaven: Even a casual glance at the Old Testament reveals that the kingdom is an eschatological reality. The prophets spoke of an eschatological kingdom that will consist of a restored and regathered Israel (Obad. 1:17-21), established in Zion ruled by Yhwh (Mic. 4:8), with a Davidic heir on an eternal throne (Is. 9:7), and will be superior to and served by all other nations (Ps. 102:22). This kingdom is expected to be ruled by one who brings blessing, righteousness, and justice to the land and to the people (Ps. 72) and is identified in terms of being both Davidic (Hos. 3:5; Mic. 5:2-5a; Is. 11:1; Zech. 3:8) and Divine (Ps. 2; Mic. 2:12-13). The “kingdom” expresses the realm and rule of Yhwh on earth where infant mortality is a thing of the past, a hundred years of age is considered a youth, and wolves graze grass alongside lambs (Is. 65:17-25). In short, the kingdom is the eschatological climax of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-22) and Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7:8-17) which has already been described by the prophets as the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:22-38). But Matthew does not simply refer to this reign of Yhwh from David’s throne as “the kingdom” but as the kingdom of heaven.
While it is true that Matthew alone refers to the eschatological kingdom with the modifier of heaven (τῶν οὐρανῶν) and does so frequently (32x) it would be a mistake to think that Matthew has a different idea than the other gospel writers who refer to the kingdom with the modifier of God (τοῦ θεοῦ) or more simply as the kingdom. These terms refer to the same reality in these different ways for the sake of emphasis. So, why does Matthew emphasize the kingdom being of heaven?
Some suggest that by saying “the kingdom of heaven”, Matthew stresses the kingdom as belonging to Yhwh (Obad. 21) without using the divine name. Of course, this doesn’t square with the facts (a) Matthew isn’t writing to non-believing Jews with such superstitious sensitivities, (b) Matthew is not afraid to use the term “kingdom of God” (12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43), and (c) the term “God” (θεός) translates “God” (אלהים) of the Old Testament, not the divine name Yhwh (יהוה). Others suggest that while the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are basically synonymous terms, the phrase “of heaven” provides room for Matthew to maneuver in the sense that he can easily present Jesus (God the Son) as king over this kingdom of heaven without confusing the issue of God the Father and God the Son. Yet, we don’t see other biblical writers shy away from statements that link Jesus to the Father (i.e., Jn. 10:30: I and the Father are one). More likely is the idea that in Matthew, there is an ongoing comparison between heaven and earth. There is a reality that God is the Lord and Master of both heaven and earth (11:25) and yet disciples are to pray that His kingdom come to earth and that His will be done on earth as it already is done in heaven (6:10). To put it simply, the kingdom of heaven is God’s perfect rule and reign as is expected in His abode (heaven). The genitive “of heaven” is a genitive of source (the kingdom whose authority comes from/is sourced in heaven). To say that the kingdom of heaven is at hand declares that the kingdom of heaven is poised to invade earth.
The Nearness of the Kingdom: There has been much debate over the simple Greek verb ἠγγικεν (is at hand/has come near). Some see John as proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven has now arrived, yet there are several other contexts in which Matthew uses the same verb (21:1, 34; 26:45, 46) that will not allow for this interpretation. The verb from ἐγγίζω literally never means “it is here” yet declares and describes a proximity. Even by using the perfect tense (describing a completed action with ongoing results) the term can only mean that the kingdom has already drawn near and continues to be nearby. This is not the same as stating that the kingdom has arrived and is thus established. If the kingdom has already come and is established, then the call to repent makes no sense. The establishment of the kingdom includes the judgment of those who remain in rebellion (Ps. 2). One cannot repent after the judgment has been declared and executed. The imperative to repent is delivered due to the proximity of the kingdom, not the arrival of the kingdom.
Repentance and the Kingdom: There has always been a link between Israel’s heart of obedience and her enjoyment of blessings via personal contact and communion with Yhwh. It is for this reason that feast of Trumpets (Lev. 23:23-25) and the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:26-32) precede the celebration of Booths (Lev. 23:33-43) where Yhwh dwells among His people. The Feast of Booths prefigures the kingdom (1 Kings 8:2; Ezek. 45:25) and thus must be preceded by the repentance of the people (Is. 53; Zech. 12:10). It is for this reason that the prophets concerned themselves with urging the people to repent and return to Yhwh (see above). While the kingdom blessings of Yhwh are promised to Israel and thus are guaranteed to occur, they will not come without the people’s turning away from sin in heart, mind, and deed and returning to Yhwh. If the kingdom of heaven is staged to invade and dominate planet earth, then it is time to repent in order that times of refreshing might come from the presence of Yhwh (Acts 3:19). John’s point is simple: if God is about to bring His kingdom to earth, then the nation of Israel is not ready. She must repent and turn to Him, now!
 Charles Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 32.  Josephus, Josephus: The Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), Ant. 18.116-9, p. 581.  John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 135-6.  David Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 106-7.  R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 93-5.  John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 35-6.  D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 128-9.