Today’s Gospel records the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets. He is the Advent prophet. No one anticipated the coming of the savior better than John. His message warned, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) With these words, He proclaimed that the savior would soon take up His reign and that repentance was the way to prepare for that reign.
When John speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he is not proclaiming a static thing. It is not so much a place as it is an activity. The kingdom of heaven is the active reign of heaven. It is about the one who reigns in heaven also reigning on earth. To say that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, is to say that God is about to reveal His reign on this earth. God has always reigned, but John is telling us that He is about to reveal that reign in a special way.
John proclaimed that repentance is the proper way to prepare for that revelation. The only thing is that repentance is something that we cannot do. Just as Martin Luther wrote, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my lord or come to Him …” So also, could we say, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength repent of my sins or acknowledge them.” Repentance, like faith, is a miracle that the Holy Spirit must work in us.
The repentance that John proclaimed has several parts. He begins by pointing to sin. Now, I don’t know about you, but when something calls attention to my sins, my first instinct is to say, “It’s not my fault!” I follow in the footsteps of Adam. God caught Adam in sin and said, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12[Then Adam] said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:11–12) Like Adam, my first instinct is to blame someone else.
Then there are the times when I deceive myself into thinking that I didn’t do anything wrong. I am just like the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out to see John. The Pharisees had detuned the law by developing the Tradition of the Elders … a set of principles that allowed them to think they were keeping the law when they were not. I do the same thing. I sin and then I rationalize away that sin. I deceive myself into thinking that my wrong doing is not all that serious.
Maybe you have the same struggles when you repent. Maybe you deny your sinfulness in other ways. The fact of the matter is that we all sin. AND we all deny that we sin.
John’s stern warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees are for us as well. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. (Matthew 3:7–8) These words proclaim that there is a wrath to come … a wrath that we so richly deserve because of our sin. The fruit that is in keeping with repentance simply acknowledges this sin … and this wrath. These words teach that the way to avoid the wrath of God against sin begins by confessing that sin and acknowledging that such sin deserves the wrath of God.
The repentance that John preached then proceeded to look for the kingdom of heaven. After repentance confesses sin and the wrath of God against that sin, it looks for the kingdom of heaven to break in and rescue from that wrath. The Kingdom of Heaven is not just at hand, but it is at hand for you. The one who reigns in heaven reigns for you.
What about those who believe that there is another way to salvation? Apparently, both the Pharisees and Sadducees believed that God’s grace placed them under the reign of God by virtue of their physical descent from Abraham. All they had to do was be reasonably decent people, and the one who reigned in heaven would reign for them. John sternly warned them as well. He continued to speak to the Pharisees and Sadducees and said, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Matthew 3:9) Physical descent from Abraham does nothing to guarantee a place with the one who reigns in heaven.
Jesus [Himself] said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6) John agreed with that one hundred per cent. Since John’s ministry came before Jesus, He pointed to Jesus as the one to come. He proclaimed that the only way to guarantee a place with the one who reigns in heaven is through the one who is to come … Jesus. Any other way is false. The Pharisees and Sadducees pointed to their physical descent from Abraham. Where are you tempted to point for your place with the one who reigns in heaven? How are you tempted to stray from Christ?
What about those who refuse to repent? John continued and said, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10) John asked his hearers to imagine that a lumberjack had leaned his axe against a tree. He was evaluating the tree to see if it should be chopped down. If the lumberjack evaluated the tree as worthless, then he would cut it down and use it for firewood. John wanted his hearers to understand that those who refuse to confess their sin are like that tree. They are ready for the fire.
Now that John has broken us down … now that he has proclaimed that we have no hope in our own power … now that he has proclaimed that our only hope lies in confessing that we are unworthy sinners … now that John has proclaimed that the one who reigns in heaven is ready to reign for you … now that he has done all that, he is ready to proclaim the one who is to follow him … the one whose sandals [he is] not worthy to carry. (Matthew 3:11) Those who read this Gospel account, know that John is talking about Christ Jesus.
John compared his baptism to the baptism of the one who is to come. John’s baptism into repentance points forward to the coming savior. It is the baptism for the Old Testament Christian. It looked forward to the forgiveness, life, and salvation that the savior would earn with His sacrifice.
Jesus instituted His baptism after He rose from the dead. The Apostle Paul wrote “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3–4) John’s baptism looked forward to the perfect life, suffering, and death of Jesus. The Baptism instituted by Jesus joins us to the perfect life, suffering, death, and resurrection that He Himself has already accomplished for you.
In the end, John pointed forward to Jesus who would rescue us from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death. By the power of the Holy Spirit, repentance confesses sin and receives the forgiveness of sins by the one who now reigns in both earth and heaven, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
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