Starting with Repentance (Matthew 3:1-12)
I. How It Started
One of the most important movements in the history of the world, a movement that has profoundly affected the shape of the world as we know it, formally began with these words...
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
That statement is number one of the Ninety-Five Theses (or Propositions) written by a German friar named Martin Luther. As you may know, the movement that Luther helped birth would eventually be known as the Protestant Reformation. Luther had publicly posted this document in 1517 in order to provoke a debate about the Roman Catholic teaching concerning something called indulgences. Though Luther's argument was lengthy (95 points to be exact), one of the basic issues was this: the selling of indulgences (that were said to reduce one's punishment for sins... this sale, this transaction) ultimately weakens God's call to genuine repentance.
But what is repentance... and for disciples of Jesus, what part does it play in our daily pursuit of Christ? Let's consider this question as we consider the beginning of another movement. Turn over to Matthew 3 from Our Bible Reading Plan last week.
II. The Passage: “In Keeping with Repentance” (3:1-12)
Where we find ourselves in Matthew's Gospel is precisely where we find ourselves in terms of the calendar: just emerging from the Christmas story. But as we discover in this same chapter, Jesus is no longer a child. Listen to what takes places some 30 years after the Christmas story...
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”  Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him,  and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.  And 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.  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.  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
I think most of you recognize that what's being described here is the beginning of a movement far, far more influential than even the Reformation. What we're reading about here is the formal beginning of the life-restoring, and one day universe-altering, ministry of Jesus Christ.
Of course, without that 1st century movement in the Middle East, there would be no 16th century reformation movement in Europe. But please don't miss this: just as in Germany fifteen centuries later, the movement that begins in Matthew 3 also begins with a declaration involving... you guessed it: repentance. Did you hear that in verse 2? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” So to better understand repentance, and to better recognize genuine repentance, let me give you four simple observations from this story about John the Baptist.
First, repentance is ultimately the call of God. As verses 1-4 make clear, this call to “repent” was not something John thought up. John was simply the messenger; the mouthpiece. As Matthew points out, John not only dressed like and lived like some of the Old Testament (OT) prophets, he was in fact the fulfillment of OT prophecy (specifically Isaiah 40:3, quoted here in 3:3). But as the Apostle Paul would later declare, it is God who “now... commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). In fact, as Paul write to the Romans, “God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (2:4)
Second, repentance means a new heart-posture away from sin. In verses 5-6, the writer describes the incredible response to God's call for repentance through the ministry of John. Thousands of people were going to be baptized. But notice what else they were doing, according to verse 6. They were also “confessing their sins”. Well of course they were, since repentance involves a new heart-posture away from sin. Sins once coveted and consumed and concealed in the dark... are now confessed in the light. That's good evidence for a change of heart, isn't it? In the New Testament (NT), to repent is to “repent... of... wickedness” (Acts 8:22), to repent of things like “impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality (2 Corinthians 12:21), to repent of one's sinful “works” or “deeds” (Revelation 2:22; 9:20; 16:11). As Paul would later describe in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation”. Think about repentance as a closed fist (of the sinful heart) turning into an open hand (of the repentant heart). When you are grieved by how toxic that closed fist really is according to God's word, there is a new heart-posture that pushes sin away rather than continuing to embrace it.
Third, repentance always bears sin-refusing, God-obeying fruit. As we read in verses 7-10, John the Baptist was skeptical of the Jewish religious leaders who were coming out to be baptized. John knew what Jesus would later point out: that too many of these leaders were more interested in gaining people's esteem than doing God's will. If everyone else was going to be baptized, it appears these leaders were willing to pay this small price in order to maintain their outward show of righteousness. But as John argues in v. 8, a genuinely new heart-posture away from sin will show itself in a genuinely new lifestyle of fruitfulness for God. To be clear, this outward change is not repentance itself. It is the fruit of repentance. But a new life-posture away from sin is strong evidence of a new heart-posture away from sin. And when that's lacking, we should be suspicious, as John is here. He also points out there is a judgment coming, and that fact should sober everyone about the need for genuine repentance. Getting baptized or church membership (“children of Abraham”) or a prayed prayer or human inventions like indulgences cannot give us any genuine assurance apart from genuine repentance and the fruit it produces.
So where is all of this leading? It's leading us to Jesus. Fourth, above all, repentance prepares our hearts for Christ. Look back at vs. 11-12. While John's ministry was the beginning of a powerful movement, it was merely the preparation phase. John was baptizing with plain old water. It was a beautiful symbol of cleansing for those who had a new heart-posture away from sin, but it was still just water. In contrast, the exalted One for whom John was preparing the way, he would immerse some of them into the very Spirit of God, while others, he would one day immerse in the very fires of judgment. But even when Jesus arrived, the call remained “repent”.
Remember, John's announcement in 3:2 is the exact same message declared by Jesus in 4:17. So if genuine repentance is a closed fist turning into an open hand, we can't ever forget to whom God wants that open hand reaching: Jesus Christ. We can't ever forget what God wants to place in that open hand: new life in and through Jesus. We can't ever forget to what God wants that open hand to hold fast: the confession of our faith (Hebrews 4:14).
Think about this: John's call to repentance in 3:2 was issued in light of the coming of “the kingdom of heaven”. He was, in effect saying, “The King is coming! Turn back from your rebellion! Turn away from your schemes of self-rule, from the idea that you're on the throne! The King is coming! There is still time to enjoy the goodness of His reign. He is a good King! He is a merciful King! Turn back! There is still time!”
Yes, repentance is itself an act of faith; faith in God's warnings about sin and self. But it must go hand in hand with a trust that not only rejects sin, but also embraces the Savior. This is why, according to Acts 20:21, the Apostle Paul spent his life “testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” As Jesus himself said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:32)
III. "The Entire Life"
Brothers and sisters, this morning we need to carefully consider the significance of this fact that, as one book title expressed it, repentance is the first word of the gospel. For some of you, maybe the call of God is coming through louder than it ever has. For you, it's time to finally respond to that call. If there is a recognition in you this morning of how toxic that closed fist really is according to God's word, then turn and trust that Jesus is King; that through his death and resurrection, there really is hope of forgiveness, freedom, and forever with God.
This is of course, what Hebrews 6:1 describes as laying “a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God”. Speaking of great movements of God, for every true Christian, that movement of grace in his or heart absolutely and also started with repentance. Every true disciple of Jesus builds on a foundation of sincere repentance and saving faith.
But what about in your daily pursuit of Jesus? Well, as our brother Martin Luther reminded us over 500 years ago, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance therefore is not simply the foundation of our faith, it is a tool with which we continue to build in response to that ongoing battle with sin. You see, the Jesus who cried out “Repent!” in his earthly ministry, is the very same Jesus who eight times (2:5, 16, 21-22; 3:3; 3:19) called churches, called believers, in the book of the Revelation to “repent”. In fact, listen to the word of Jesus himself this morning; hear him speaking to you, brother, sister. This is Revelation 3:19. “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” How do those words stir you this morning?
So maybe what God is calling us to this morning is a continuing or renewed sensitivity to sin and self, and to a regular practice of humbly hearing Jesus in both Matthew 4:17 and Revelation 3:19: “Bryce... repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (the Lord Jesus is near us)”, and “Bryce... those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” How might God use his word in that way in our lives to daily effect sincere and healthy repentance in our hearts? Brothers and sisters, when that happens, do you know what comes next? The start (once again) of a beautiful movement of God... for that day... for a new week... for eternity... for our eternal good... for the good of others... and above all, for the glory of the God to whom we turn.
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