Why Repentance is Needed
One of the famous stories from the American Revolution is Paul Revere’s ride, memorialized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Many know the motto ‘one if by land, two if by sea,’ which refers to lanterns that were to be hung in a Boston church tower to signal the arrival of British troops. When Revere saw the signal, he mounted his horse and rode furiously through the region warning the people to prepare: British troops were coming. Revere is remembered as someone who warned the people to be ready.
This historical vignette can help us understand the role of John the Baptist at the beginning of the Gospels. With John comes the return of the prophetic word, and his message is one of warning: the LORD is going to return to his temple. He is like a refiner’s fire (Mk 1:2-3; cf., Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1-4). When he returns, what will he find? God’s people must not rest on their pedigree or history. They must repent before the coming of the great day of the Lord. God’s people must not presume upon their relationship to Abraham; if God wanted to, he could turn stones into children of Abraham. Instead, John’s message is for the people to bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Mt 3:8-10; Lk 3:8-9). These are the words of a prophet.
John calls for repentance, which explains his baptizing ministry. He is signaling that the great end-time cleansing was at hand, promised in texts like Ezekiel 36:25-29. John the Baptist is the necessary forerunner of the Messiah (see Mt 11:11-14; 17:9-13). John baptizes only with water; the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Mt 3:11; Mk 1:8; Lk 3:16; Jn 1:33). John’s ministry of anticipation signals salvation is near.
It’s striking that all four Gospels begin with the ministry of John the Baptist. Isn’t it interesting that on the cusp of the great day of salvation, the message is one of activation for the people? They shouldn’t sit idly by waiting for God to intervene. Instead, they should actively repent and seek the Lord because the great day is coming (Mt 3:1-3). God’s saving actions require repentance and obedience from God’s people. Rather than being antithetical, these elements hold together in the context of the covenant. To avoid covenant curses and experience covenant blessings, the people should turn to the Lord.
As the final prophet of the old order, John’s message is one of anticipation; he looks forward to Jesus. John doesn’t teach that our obedience or repentance can save us, but that God’s people should be marked by obedience and repentance. John has a more important role than any other prophet before him because he paves the way directly for Jesus, the Messiah. But when Jesus comes, he vastly outshines John the Baptist (Jn 1:15, 30). John doesn’t consider himself worthy even to untie or carry Jesus’ sandals (Mt 3:11; Mk 1:7; Lk 3:16; Jn 1:27).
Yet Jesus proves to be the greatest servant of all. Not only is he willing to wash the feet of his disciples (Jn 13:1-20); he is even willing to sacrifice his own life for his friends (Jn 15:13-15).
In the opening chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, we are introduced to the King! We learn of his incarnation and this week we will learn of his baptism. From that point, we will see his preparation for his ministry as he is tempted in the wilderness. This week we hear John the Baptist calling us to prepare for this King in repentance. What does that look like? What is repentance? How do we repent?
Join us this week as we continue our study in the Gospel of Matthew and journey through the Sermon on the Mount. Following that we will return to the book of Genesis but for the time being we will be in the book of the Genesis of Jesus Christ, the coming King. Won’t you join us?
Thank you for your prayers for Michelle and myself. We are doing much better and are eagerly anticipating joining you in following our Lord this year and seeing what he has in store for Redeemer. I urge you to join me in daily prayer for Christ’s work through Redeemer PC in bringing about a new reformation in our lives and in our communities.
*This article was adapted from Brandon Crowe’s book, The Path of Faith.