Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 05/01/1994
3:1 Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitus and Lysaneus was tetrarch of Abilene, 2 in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the Word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. 3 And he came into all the district around the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make ready the paths of the Lord; make his way straight.' 5 Every ravine shall be filled up and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places smooth, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." 7 He therefore began saying to the multitudes who were going out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore, bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 And also the axe is already laid at the root of the tree. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire." 10 And the multitudes were questioning him, saying, "Then what shall we do?" 11 And he would answer and say to them, "Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise." 12 And some tax gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" 13 And he said to them, "Gather no more than what you have been ordered to." 14 And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."
Perhaps no prophet in the history of Israel stirred up more excitement and anticipation than John the Baptist. To understand why we must know something about the history of Israel. For if John was the person they thought he might be, then his coming meant that the whole history of the Jewish nation was coming to its climax.
That history begins with the call of Abraham about 2,000 BC. The Abrahamic Covenant is recorded in Gen. 12:1-3. Abraham was to leave his home and go to a land that God would show him, and God would make him a great nation through whom every family in the earth would be blessed. From then on his descendants would be God's chosen people, a people with a special identity and a special mission, to bring that blessing into the world. God proceeded to reveal progressively to them who He was and what that blessing entailed. He delivered them from bondage in Egypt and gave them the Law through Moses about 1500 BC. This was a critical moment in that progressive revelation, as God's moral character as well as his power and his grace were coming into sharper focus. Then about 1,000 BC we come to the reign of David and the Davidic Covenant of 2 Sam. 7:16. David's house would endure forever, and from it would come a future king who came to be known as the Messiah, the Anointed One. But Israel was rebellious and fell into idolatry. The nation was divided, the Northern Kingdom passed out of existence, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was exiled to captivity in Babylon around 600 BC. A remnant was allowed to return to the Land in 536. Cured of their idolatry by the experience of exile, they waited for the Davidic king and the Davidic kingdom to be restored to them according to God's promise. But they forgot that the promised Blessing was not just for them, but for the whole world. So they focused on an earthly kingdom while they became a vassal state in subjection to various human empires, culminating in Alexander the Great's conquest of the world in about BC 325.
Alexander conquered the world and wept that there were no more worlds to conquer. But he died at the age of 32 and his empire was divided among his squabbling generals. Judea fell to the lot of Ptolemy of Egypt, who allowed her a limited amount of self rule. Still their subjugation grated on the Jews, and they longed for the promised deliverer. But things would get much worse before they got better. In 170 BC Judea was conquered by Syria and Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. Soon the fragments of Alexander's one-world empire were reunited under Roman rule. The Maccabees revolted but were crushed, and the Jews once again found themselves an occupied territory, though the Romans allowed them limited autonomy under a puppet king (Herod the Great at the time of Jesus' birth). By the time of Jesus' ministry the real power was vested in the Roman governor; even the two corrupt high priests were essentially under his thumb. Judea groaned under this servitude, and the longing for the promised deliverer, a king like David who would free her from foreign rule and restore the glory of the Solomonic empire had reached a fever pitch.
They ought to have read their own Scriptures better, but perhaps it is understandable given their trials how the Jews had come to concentrate on the military and political aspects of the Old-Testament prophecies to the neglect of other elements: Christ's fulfillment of the whole Law and the sacrificial system, for example. But they kept a spiritual emphasis in their messianic expectations to this extent: they believed that God would send the Messiah in response to their Repentance. The rabbis they were listening to at this time had said things like this: "If all Israel would repent for only one day, the Son of David would come forth." "If Israel would observe only one Sabbath according to the ordinance, forthwith would the Son of David come." And perhaps most tellingly, given the depths of their desire, they said, "All the stages are past, and all depends solely on repentance and good works." It was with these words of their own rabbis resonating in their ears that they heard the ringing challenge of John the Baptist: "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!"
When John called Judea to repentance, the Jews knew that he was calling them to prepare for the coming of their long anticipated deliverer, and they thought that this repentance would in fact be the thing that would usher him in to their midst. They therefore heard those words with an excitement which would be hard for us to imagine today. That is why every class of society was so persistent with their questions about what they should do. They believed that if they did it they could bring the Messiah on to the scene. Little did they know--though John tried his best to tell them--that God was preparing to do a greater thing in Israel than they could begin to imagine: to liberate not just them but, in accordance with his original promise to Abraham, the whole world; and to liberate it from bondage, not just to Caesar, but to Satan, Sin, and Death. With this background in mind, we are ready to get the real impact of what John had to say to them.
John came to prepare Israel for the Messiah by turning on their heads some of their most basic assumptions about the Messiah and his kingdom. And those assumptions center on the idea of Repentance. What are the radical points John was trying to make about it?
Notice a subtle difference between what John actually said and what the Jews, controlled by their preconceived notions, were able to hear. Contemporary Jewish theology emphasized that people should repent so that the Kingdom could come. John said something very different: the Kingdom is coming; therefore, repent! Do you see the difference? It is central to the whole New Testament concept of salvation. For the Jews, repentance was itself a meritorious act which was capable of meriting a response from God, a response which, because he was just, would in fact obligate him to send the Messiah. For John, the Messiah was coming not in response to the people's repentance, but as the expression of the Divine Initiative of God's Grace. God does not respond to our repentance by sending the Messiah; we respond to his sending the Messiah by repenting. For the Jews (and all human beings following the mind of the "natural man" since), if we make ourselves righteous enough, God will bless us. For John (and Jesus and the Apostles), this misses the point completely. The Biblical way is, if we accept God's gracious blessing by faith alone, it will make us righteous. Any righteousness that we have is always the effect of God's grace, never its cause. This is not a trivial distinction. It is sitting right on the watershed between salvation by grace and salvation by works, between God's way of grace and the way that seemeth right unto a man but leadeth unto death. Biblical repentance is not our turning over a new leaf to change ourselves and make ourselves more worthy. It is relinquishing all claim to self and to our own righteousness and giving ourselves over completely to Christ so that he can change us and make us worthy. John's language is subtly but beautifully out of step with contemporary Jewish assumptions and consistent with the doctrine of salvation as the New Testament would proceed to develop it in the Apostolic exposition of the Messiah God would actually send.
This is the point of verse 8: Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance. Every time the Bible overturns the human propensity to believe in works righteousness, it simultaneously guards against the natural man's reaction to that overturning: to assume that the doctrines of Grace alone and Faith alone are really just a license to sin. It is the caricature of Biblical doctrine known to theologians as Antinomianism. It is amazing to me how efficiently we are able to ignore the beautifully balanced way in which the Bible presents this truth. Let's get the distinction clear. Repentance is not us changing ourselves to make ourselves more worthy of God's grace. It is allowing God to change us by his grace. Either way, we change. Or I should say, only the second way do we really change in a way that is spiritually significant. God does not accept us because we have changed to an adequate extent, nor is our acceptance based on that change. He changes us because he has already accepted us in Christ, and the change is based on that acceptance.
John was known as The Baptist. He came preaching not only repentance, but a baptism of repentance for the remission of sin. What would this have meant to contemporary Jews? They were already familiar with the rite of baptism. Proselytes--Gentiles who wished to become Jews in order to worship the true God--were required to undergo a ceremonial washing with water before they were received into full fellowship. All Jewish males had to be circumcised, but proselytes had to be circumcised and baptized. The implication is that because they were not Jews, they needed extra purification.
Well, then, this is one of the more radical elements of John's preaching. He was the first to ask born Jews to be baptized. Why? He was in effect asking his converts to accept the fact that they had no more claim on God than a Gentile did! Had they understood, they would have been saying to God that they were approaching him on the basis of his grace alone. John's baptism then is precisely parallel with his telling the Jews, "Don't even think of saying, 'Abraham is our father.' God is able to raise up children to Abraham out of these stones." Your ancestry does not give you a spiritual leg up, in other words. Is Abraham your father? Were your parents Christians? Were you raised in the church? Fine. You are still a sinner. You still have to repent and accept salvation by grace alone through faith alone. John's baptism in the context of first-century Judaism and of his own preaching is the most eloquent object lesson imaginable of the truth that God has no grandchildren. The point of it is that, no matter who you are, repentance is for you.
This is the point of verse 9. The axe is already aimed at the tree roots. Trees without good fruit are headed for the brushpile and the fire. You need to repent even if you are descended from Abraham. And you need to do it now. We are all sinners in need of grace; we are all brands that need to be snatched from the burning. John makes the urgency of repentance graphically plain.
John's answers to the questions about what specific fruits of repentance he had in mind for various groups are most intriguing. They are one more example of how radically he was turning the whole Jewish conception of the Messiah and his Kingdom on its head. For they all undercut the assumption that God was going to send a military Messiah. If a military Messiah were coming, if Christ was really about overthrowing the Roman Empire and restoring Jewish hegemony, then John's advice makes no sense at all. If we are preparing for a rebellion against Rome, why tell the people who work for the Romans--the tax collectors and the soldiers--to stay in their jobs and just do them honestly? If Christ were going to be the kind of military Messiah the Jews were expecting, the logical thing for collaborators to do as an act of repentance would be to resign, to change sides in preparation for the struggle that was coming.
John's answers must have seemed very confusing to the people asking the questions. But they were so convinced that their understanding of the Old Testament was right that they probably translated them into "bide your time." But let us not miss the point. Repentance is not something that happens in a vacuum. The question "What shall we do?" is a good question to ask. But it must drive us to Scripture, and the answer must be consistent with the whole tenor and direction of the Scripture as well as with its individual statements. "Good works," works that are the fruits of true repentance, are not just anything we might think is nice. They must be done in response to God's Word and in accordance with it. Otherwise our good intentions are quite capable of doing more harm than good, of hindering the work of the kingdom rather than furthering it.
The whole Christian life, said Martin Luther, must be a life of repentance. John the Baptist helps us to understand why this is so and what it means. Repentance is not changing our ways so that God will accept us; it is changing our ways in response to the fact that God has accepted us in Christ. Therefore, it can be a joyous thing, a way in which we express our love for the Savior who gave his all for us. May God help us to experience that joy in greater measure. For since Christ has come, because he still stands at the door and knocks, John's exciting words are still true: The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 8/28/2004 3:46 PM