Matthew 3:1-10 - A Baptism of Repentance
Repentance is a preparation for receiving Jesus. John makes this clear. A baptism of repentance is not saving per se. It is a heart and life preparation to receive Jesus. What do we need to repent of?
John’s first substantiation is that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This means that there is a new reality about to be birthed that requires a heart preparation. This new kingdom that is coming comes in and through the person of the Messiah; an expectation all Jews. They were very likely in a time unparalleled in terms of its expectation of the Messiah’s coming. Everything was astir. Many factions of the Jews were percolators of a kingdom on earth. Many thought they were the Messiah. Many prophecies were starting to be fulfilled. There was the stir about “the king of the Jews” being born some years earlier. There was a significant and probably unprecedented expectation that the Messiah was about to come and that Israel would finally be delivered from the hands of foreign oppressors.
So John lifts the hopes, expectations and wonder even higher through his ministry. It is clear that he had a significant ministry by the area from which people were coming to get baptized. Further, though baptism would surely have been a relatively new idea, they embraced John and the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance. In so doing, they were apparently confessing their sins as they were baptized. (3:6)
John was a preparer of the way. Matthew affirms this prophetically (3:3), but John himself would state it in his own terms later (vv. 11-12). John raised expectations. He proclaimed the coming of the Messiah with his kingdom, and he instituted a baptism of repentance as the key act of response to the verbal call to repentance. The immersion thus symbolized, or emblemized a cleansing from sin for the participants - a washing - to prepare them morally (best guess from the context of the “confessing their sins”) for the coming One.
But as with most of prophetic ministry, there is a specific target of this call to repentance that supersedes all others. It is the call that goes out to the religious leaders. John makes it clear he will not tolerate their justifications, or rationalizations, or religious/historical posturing (vv. 7-10). They are special targets of his call to repentance - and with them he goes further. He is so clearly focused on their ability to posture and make pretense that, unlike with all others who have a simple call to repent, he calls the religious leaders to bear fruit that befits repentance. (v.8) In other words, he wants actions not just religious ceremony or pretentious rituals. They are the type who would make a big scene with tears and crying out and letting everybody hear their repentance, but do absolutely nothing that would be clear evidence of a changed heart and mind about their sin. So he insists they can’t rationalize this one away and mere words of repentance are not enough.
The question for them especially, but others also is, “What exactly are we called to repent of?” In the general call (v. 1), there is no content and a kingdom context in the call to repent. The hearers obviously understood it to have something to do with confession of sin because they did that as they were baptized. Again, when John challenges the Pharisees to bear fruit befitting repentance, he gives absolutely no content to it.
Mark does say that John preached “...a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) Luke 3:10-14 does give specific moral and/or ethical content to the repentance to specific people who ask specific questions. But there doesn’t seem to be any particular focus to what he is calling them to repent of.
So what did they (or we) need to repent of to prepare our hearts for Jesus and the kingdom?
This question would be obvious if I were a sinner needing salvation. In most cases we would focus on moral and ethical failures. The Law, after all, is quite moral in its focus. However, within the “morality” of the Law (even the 10 commandments), there is a very significant focus on worship and right relating to God. The prophets are at least balanced in the idea of relational sins. David’s psalms are full of relational failures that he decries.
In the end, morality is the substance (not the whole substance) of relationship which can be collectively summed up in the concept of love. Thus Jesus would sum up the law and the prophets in the general command to love God with all we are and have and to love our neighbour as ourself. Paul says, “Love does not wrong to a neighbour. So love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10)
So, the question or repentance, if summed up, would be something like, “Turn away from anything that doesn’t properly express love for God or a neighbour.” So it can have quite a broad spectrum of content. What is a failure to love God or other people?
I made my quick list (chronic self-reflection made this part easy):
1. Lack of zeal for the person of Jesus. (Response: Doing so now. In process. Action to it.)
2. Fear of man. Key thing I am pressing for as I seek Jesus. (All my life I have reacted to people in fear. After becoming a Christian, I remember being deeply hurt by two of my first three pastors, yet fear kept me going in spite of the hurt, but never mentioning it - to this day. Fear of man has been a rule of my life that has been and continues to be a long, difficult, upward struggle. What I am finding, clearly, is that the more I take care of #1 above, the better it gets.)
3. Reactive rather than proactive to much of life. (Again, the is a syndrome or infirmity of my family context. We lived around reacting to my father’s moods and distempers, his drinking and other controlling and sometimes terrifying behaviours. So I learned well to “read and react”. I would have made a great defensive back in football! That’s why, in spite of being short, I played defense my whole life in hockey until recent years. My first tries at playing forward in hockey were the among the most unnatural experiences I have had. I just didn’t understand how to think proactively. Once again, as #1 is growing - as it was through the early 90’s - I am being filled with revelation and becoming far more proactive in advancing God’s kingdom.)
But then as I pondered on the meaning of “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” a fourth came. This one didn’t come easily. It was helped along by some reading I have been doing in another book, but it came clear to me that repentance involves more than focusing on my failures and turning away from them. In this case, a whole change of thinking was required:
4. Wrong thinking about who I am in Christ; a negative instead of a biblical vision of myself. (I am pressing in all my reading, devotion, worship, meditating on the Scriptures, prayer with my wife, godly counsel, etc., to correct my thinking about God and especially who I am in Him. I am realizing how deficient I am in my thinking about myself in Christ and what His vision of me is. I have a very negative moral framework for understanding myself. I fuel a poor view, or low view of myself, by constantly being aware of and looking for my sins and failures. This is NOT a New Testament view of humanity.)
This is the hardest one to understand because we normally think of repentance in moral or ethical terms. Sin, we think, is mostly in that sphere. But the greater sins, the sins of the spirit, don’t dwell there. They are things like pride. Pride leads us to believe that we are greater than we are. But it also leads us to believe we are less than we are. Pride determines its own truth and does not let the word of God determine truth for us.
So, culturally, in our indulgence of sins of the flesh, being rampant as they are, inclines us to a relational position of constant guilt before Jesus. We are guilty all the time. Guilty for our own fleshly sins. Guilty for indulging rather than disciplining our children. Guilty for the sins of our children. Guilty all the time. Yet this idea of repentance clearly has to do with the coming of the kingdom, not just dealing with moral or ethical guilt. Certainly that is a component. But belief structures resulting from human pride and being subject to demonic influence through our sins are just as opposed to the kingdom of God as are any particular moral sins.
The context leads me to conclude that the primary repentance intended by John is a repentance of wrong belief structures that line us up in opposition to, rather than agreement with the kingdom of God. Our entire belief structure (especially for those hearers!) has to change in order to prepare for the advent of Jesus and His kingdom into our lives. This does have moral, ethical and relational implications. But the primary location of change is in the heart and mind. Behaviour flows from that.
I wonder how many Christians, in spite of being devout, live in bondage to a crippling sense of despondency, hopelessness or fear? They have never seen themselves glorious in Christ; already seated with Christ in the heavenlies; more than conquerors through Him who loved us; loved inseparably; warriors anointed with power to advance a kingdom. These are visions of ourselves we rarely dwell on because we falsely believe it to be prideful. We believe we are far more spiritual when we look and focus upon our sin and our desperate need of a Saviour. We are tragically wrong.
It is not pride to agree with the definitions of Scripture concerning who we are in Christ. If we really trust the sufficiency of His atoning sacrifice, it should reflect in our agreement with the glory that sacrifice purchased for us. We ought to quit agreeing with the idea that our principle nature is “sinner” and begin to walk in the glory and vision and hope that comes through the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13). We ought to begin to see ourselves as friends of Christ (John 15:15). We ought to gain new understanding of our nobility “in Him” - not in ourselves.
Perhaps this can only come through abiding. And many are too busy to abide. So many believers do quick daily devotions, fire off quick prayers and never let the Spirit of Christ penetrate our self-concepts. Many prefer an instant relationship of guilt, to a deep, meaningful relationship of freedom and friendship. But not me. I am pressing in. And He is redefining me as I do so. The view of myself that is developing, the joy that is growing inside, and the zeal that is overtaking my heart and mind for Christ is worth every minute I sacrifice to be with Him instead of the latest TV program or electronic gadget.
I am beginning to believe this is the greatest repentance - to believe in a Christ who came to restore our glory, not to have the ministry of pointing out our sins (at least as an end in itself - like I have been living most of my life). I am beginning to see that the goal is not to get good, but to be a passionate lover of Jesus and people. And I can’t chronically focus on my deficits to get there. I have to learn to focus on His sufficiency to bring me there.