A Unique Man, a Life-Changing Message
John the Baptist, Repentance
This morning we begin our study of the gospel of Matthew. I suppose it would be more accurate to say we are beginning a study of THE REST of the book of Matthew. We recently came from a study of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We also have preached many times on the birth narratives in Matthew 1 and 2. So that is why we begin this study of the gospel of Matthew in chapter 3.
The gospel of Matthew was written by one of the disciples of Jesus. Matthew was also known as Levi and before he met Jesus, he was a tax-collector.
The word “gospel” means Good News. We make a mistake when we read the Gospels as biographies. That is not the intent of the authors. They do want to tell us about the life of Jesus, but they are not concerned to do it chronologically (though there are chronological sequences). Their intention is to reveal the person of Jesus. For example, when I write a eulogy for a funeral I tend to group my thoughts into topics instead of try to recount a person’s life in a strict chronological order. I might tell a story from early life about family loyalty followed by one that was later in life. Then I might tell some stories that chronologically was earlier than both those stories. The goal is to help you get to know the person. That’s what the gospels are doing.
Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience. He wanted to show that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the Sovereign King. In the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew, Matthew traces the descendants of Jesus all the way back to Abraham (the beginning of the Jewish race). Because of the audience, there are many teaching passages in Matthew and lots of references to the Old Testament. He was speaking ‘their language” and doing so in a way that he hoped would communicate with his audience.
Matthew 3 begins the actual ministry of Jesus. And in all the gospels the starting point includes a man named John the Baptist.
We know from the Gospel of Luke that John was the child of elderly parents: Zechariah and Elizabeth. We know he was about six months older than Jesus and his mom was a relative of Mary the mother of Jesus. So, Jesus and John were cousins. That doesn’t mean they hung out together, but they were related.
To understand the significance of John, you need to be familiar with the end of the Old Testament. In the very last verses of the book of Malachi we read this:
5 “Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. 6 His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
God made this promise after Elijah had died. The promise was understood as promising an Elijah-type prophet who would come and call people to repentance. After these verses. . . there were 400 years of silence. No prophecies. No word from the Lord.
So when John shows up on the scene looking and sounding a great deal like Elijah, it IS a BIG deal. God was speaking again, and the people were listening.
4 John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. 5 People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. 6 And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.
The camel hair woven garment worn by John was not like the expensive camel hair coats you might find today. It was rough, crude, and inexpensive. The honey he ate was not honey that he purchased at the store or online. It was wild honey which he would obtain at the risk of many stings. I have to think that he had to cover those locusts in honey to get those things to go down!
So John was kind of mountain man. No one came to see John because he was well dressed and smooth of speech. As we will see, John also wasn’t concerned about tact. He said what needed to be said and said it in a way that no one would mistake what he was saying.
We have to jump to the last of this passage to see more about John as a person. We read,
11 “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn, but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”
This passage tells us of John’s humility, selflessness, and clarity about his purpose. One author pointed out that if John the Baptist had lived at any other time he would have been “the man”. He would have been wildly popular for a long time. But John was overshadowed by Jesus.
That’s a hard role to play. Yet, John played it willingly. You have to wonder if John’s parents told him even from the earliest years of his life what the angel said to his dad, Zechariah,
He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. 17 He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. (Luke 1:16-17)
John understood his role. It is the same role that you and I have. It is to point others to Jesus. It is not about our knowledge, personality or anything else. The only way people can find new life; the only way people can know God and spend eternity with Him, is through Jesus.
In John 3 we have one of the humblest statements in all Scripture. John’s disciples came to him and said they were concerned about the fact that the “new guy” was baptizing people. Let’s pick it up in John 3:28
28 You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’29 It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the best man is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. 30 He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.
31 “He has come from above and is greater than anyone else. We are of the earth, and we speak of earthly things, but he has come from heaven and is greater than anyone else.
John understood that if he did his job, people would forget about him and would all be following Jesus. He was a remarkable man.
The Message of John
His message was, 2 “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” 3 The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said,
“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
The Kingdom of Heaven and the phrase The Kingdom of God mean exactly the same thing. It means God’s presence and rule are in force. This is a warning to the people. It is kind of like saying the boss is coming or your parents are on the way home. It means it is time to shape up.
Before someone can become a citizen of this Kingdom (before they can be made right with God) John said something was necessary: People needed to repent and turn to God.
We tend to think of repentance as being sorry for our sin, but it is more than that. To repent means first, to Confess your own sin. A person can’t repent if they don’t think they have done anything wrong. Sometimes you get the feeling that when people say they are “sorry,” they are really saying that they are sorry that you are upset . . . not for what they did.
The first requirement of the gospel is to realize that we need a Savior. It means admitting that you are broken. This is why many people aren’t interested in the church, Christianity, or even in Christ as a Savior. They truly believe that they are doing well enough on their own. God says, “Be holy, as I am holy.” If you look up the definition of holy (pure and set apart for the service of the Lord), you should realize that you haven’t been close to that standard since the earliest days of life!
John called people to admit their lies, their immorality, their hatred, and their all-around general resistance to the things of God. But admitting sin is only the first step in repentance. To repent means to turn and go in another direction. True repentance is about a change in attitude and behavior.
In 2 Corinthians, 7 Paul talked about a stern letter that he had to send the Gentiles. Listen carefully to what he says,
the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. 10 For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. (2 Corinthians 7:9-10)
You can be sorry without repenting. It is common for people to feel sorry that
- Others were upset
- They were caught
- They hurt people
- They miscalculated
- They weren’t paying attention
But there is one thing in common in each of those statements there is no recognition of guilt and therefore no requirement to change.
When John spoke with the religious leaders he said: “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God”” How do you know whether someone has truly repented? If there is a genuine change in the way, you live.
John called people to a genuine change. The idea was simple: if you are going to return to the Lord then return to the Lord! You should begin following Him Luke tells us how radical this repentance was that was preached by John.
10 The crowds asked, “What should we do?”
11 John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.”
12 Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13 He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.”
14 “What should we do?” asked some soldiers.
John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:10-14)
True repentance makes a practical difference! We too should be calling people to repentance.
Harry Ironside wrote ”such a ministry is needed greatly today when men have lost, in large measure, the sense of the sinfulness of sin” adding “it is useless to preach the gospel of the grace of God to men who have no realization of their need of that grace.” (Boice p 47)
A Sober Warning
Matthew tells us,
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? 8 Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. 9 Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. 10 Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were religious leaders. They were the ones people looked up to as those who were “right with God.” They would be like most of us who go to church every week.
These men came to WATCH what John was doing. Undoubtedly, they believed they were exempt from his command to repent. After all, they were not only part of God’s “chosen people,” they were also the acknowledged leaders in the faith. They believed they were right with God and that God was probably pretty lucky to have them on his side.
John pierced through their defenses. He reminded them that God could easily replace them. If they did not also repent (and in their case they could start by repenting of their self-righteousness), they would be thrown into the fire. Strong words.
John reminds us to look at our own hearts. Are we like the Pharisees and the Sadducees? Do we think we are OK with God because we go to church and read our Bible occasionally? It is time for us to stop fooling ourselves. We are not “good people.” Not at least by the Bible’s standard of goodness. That is why we needed a Savior in the first place.
As we search our own hearts, we should also be reminded of the responsibility we have before a watching world. The temptation is to water down the truth so others will be more responsive. But here’s the thing: if we exclude repentance we present a false gospel; one that is powerless to save anyone.
We have learned that merely giving people money from our discretion account is not always a helpful thing to do. If a person is not willing to work; if they are doing nothing to help themselves, the Bible is clear: don’t help them. Why? Because such “help” is only going to strengthen the dependency.
The same is true when we share our faith. If a person is unwilling to repent they don’t want to really trust Christ, they just want to remove their guilt. They want to feel better; they do not want to enter into a transforming relationship with Christ.
The best place to start is with your own heart. Look at the areas of your life that still are not to the standard God desires. Are you truly sorry for these failures (and not just the consequences)? Do you want to change and go in a different direction?
If so, express this to the Lord. Confess your sin. Come to Jesus and let Him begin the process of build in you a brand new heart. It doesn’t happen overnight. We will have days of progress and days of regress, but if we continue to confess, repent, and follow, we will begin to change. And over time, people will see something different taking place in us. They will begin to see the reflection of Jesus in our lives.
©Copyright August 14, 2016 by Rev. Bruce Goettsche