Reading Time: 8 Minutes
We have just started a study of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7). Today, we are studying the ministry of John the Baptist (Matthew 3) to get a deeper appreciation of Jesus’ message in his famous sermon.
John the Baptist began his public ministry with these short, but powerful, words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3.2).
I want to emphasize John’s message, because it was Jesus’ message, too (Matthew 4.17).
— “Repent” means a change your mind that results in a change of behavior.
— “The kingdom” is the effective reach of God’s power.
— “The heavens” is the atmosphere around us. God is in heaven, but he is also in the “heavens,” the atmosphere around us. That means, he is as close to us as the air we breathe.
— “Come near” means that the reach of God is present, but there is still a greater realization of his presence and power.
John certainly looked like a prophet of old and people took notice of his message. How people responded to John is a good example of what repentance looks like.
Matthew 3.4-6 – Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
The Movement of Repentance
The people couldn’t stay with their normal routine and go to John at the same time. Depending on the location where John was baptizing, they walked between 18 to 80 miles from Jerusalem to hear and respond to his message. The effort involved in walking this distance demonstrated both their desperation and desire for a new life.
“You can’t go where Jesus is and stay where you are,” taught Dr. Henry Blackaby. As we consider our own change of mind and change of behavior, where has our repentance taken us? What is new in our lives because we have chosen to go where Jesus is?
In the history of Israel, no one had ever required people to be baptized the way John did. Gentiles, who wanted to join the Jewish faith, were baptized. But, Jews were never asked to be baptized until John. Their baptism demonstrated a break from their past and an openness to a new life from God.
In my early 30s, I lifted weights in a gym before they were called “fitness centers.” One of my friends in the gym was a biker, who called me “Preacher.” One day, he was overheard calling me, Preacher, and another guy piped up in a very sarcastic tone, “Oh, we have a preacher here! Are you going to save me, brother?”
How many people who start walking with Jesus have heard from old friends or work associated something sarcastic like, “Oh, miss goodie-two-shoes. Don’t mess with her, she’s got religion!” or something similar?
The truth is, baptism does set us apart. It is intended to do so. When we begin studying the Sermon on the Mount, we will learn we are set apart so we can help others experience Jesus just like we have.
There is an interesting ending to the story of my encounter with the man in the gym. Several years later and at another gym, he and I met again. He had just broken up with his girlfriend and wanted to speak to someone – me, a preacher – about the pain he was feeling. We stood outside of the entrance to the gym for thirty minutes while he described his difficulties and I attempted to help.
As a part of their baptism, the people confessed their sins. I wonder what that looked like. Was it possibly like the experience of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where a speaker introduces himself or herself with the words, “Hi, my name is John (or Mary) and I am an alcoholic/addict”?
What if traditional church meetings were this honest? What if we introduced ourselves and confessed to what we were struggling at the moment? Suppose I opened my next small group meeting with, “Hi, my name is Bob and I am a work-a-holic, people-pleaser”?
Let’s be clear. Here is what is involved in repentance.
(1) Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of behavior.
(2) Repentance involves movement away from our customary way of living. We can’t go where Jesus is and stay where we are.
(3) Repentance sets us apart from our past.
(4) Repentance gets real with our issues and makes them public in one way or another.
It is interesting and sad that the political and religious leaders of John’s day were the ones who provide a striking example of what non-repentance looks like. As we read the following verses, note that the Pharisees were the religious leaders and the Sadducees were the political leaders.
Matthew 3.7-10 – But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The religious and political leaders didn’t travel the 18 to 80 miles for a sight-seeing junket. They were there because John was an “everyday Joe” and was doing their job. The Pharisees knew that the forgiveness of sins could only be done with the proper sacrifices that they were in charge of. The Sadducees were there to make sure that John didn’t upset their “sweet-heart deal” with the Roman government.
Snakes Fleeing Fire
John didn’t mince any words with the leaders. He described them as snakes who were slithering away from the heat of a fire. They believed that they were the true children of Abraham, but he called them “children of snakes.”
When we study the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will instruct us about who is a true follower of God. He will show us how to determine who is a false prophet. He will also confront us about the true nature of our relationship with God.
The Fruit of Repentance
“Don’t talk about it, be about it,” is a slogan that was given to Maywood Baptist Church by one of our beloved former leaders. John the Baptist didn’t use those words, but he meant the same thing when he said, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (verse 8).
When I read the Bible, I always need to ask myself how I am like the “bad guys.” Here are some questions I need to ask myself as I consider producing the fruit that comes from repentance. If you are interested, you can ask yourself these questions, too.
(1) Do I attend church to make sure that things are done properly and according to the customs that our congregation has always observed?
(2) Do I get distracted and possibly angry, when familiar traditions are changed?
(3) Do I put people who attend church into “them” and “us” categories?
(4) Do I spend more time evaluating the music and the sermon than I do in changing my behavior because of the music and the sermon?
I hope you will join me in thinking about what happens to your inside condition when you attend church. Let’s all be aware of our thoughts and feelings, seeking to have them conformed to God’s word and the direction of his Spirit.
Turning Rocks Into Children
I read Psalm 3 in today’s morning time of prayer and Bible reading. A very discouraging sentence at the beginning of the Psalm states,
“Many are saying to me,
‘There is no help for you in God.'” (Psalm 3.2)
The Psalm writer knew that wasn’t the full story of his life. He knew that God was for him and that he could turn to him, even in the face of hopelessness. He said,
“But you, O Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, and the one who lifts up my head” (Psalm 3.3).
How often do we give up on people and say, “There’s no helping that guy. He is hopeless.” We need to remember that God can make his children out of rocks – our rock-hardened self-will and sin.
I met Shane Kampe after he had been healed from a traumatic brain injury. We were eating lunch at Fric and Frac with the owner, Rudy Ross, and Whispering Danny. I distinctly remember thinking, “He’s going to last six weeks, and then he’s going to be back to his old life.”
Shane likes to remind me that it’s been almost 20 years since we had that lunch and he is still going strong. I may have thought, “There is no help for Shane.” God had other plans. After all, God is the One who “is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (verse 9).
Dear God, thank you for the gift of repentance. Thank you that we don’t have to remain stuck in a broken and miserable life. Thank you that we can come to you and experience your power and love. Please help us to keep on coming to you.