Although we have simply moved from chapter two to chapter three in our study of the gospel of Matthew, we have also moved forward in time more than two decades.
While many people in Bible days were known for who their parents were (Simon son of Jonah) or where they were from (Saul of Tarsus), John was known for what he did. John was a Baptizer.
Baptisms were the result of John's preaching. Today, preachers have how-to manuals and church growth books to help them gather and keep a crowd. They tell us that the church should be in a convenient location - no more than two or three blocks from a freeway. And the message should leave people with a good feeling - don't talk about things like sin, blood, and death.
Well, John didn't have any of those books or manuals. He didn't care that the crowds were on street corners and in the temple. He decided to preach in the wilderness of Judea at the Jordan River, at least 19 miles from Jerusalem.
And as for his message, it was quite different than the books say should be preached. He told those who made this long trip,
Matt. 3:2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
"Repent." What does it mean? The Greek word is "met-an-o-EH-o." It is a combination of "met-AH," meaning "after," and "no-EH-o," meaning "to understand." Repentance is something that takes place "after understanding." In other words, we realize what sin is and change our minds about it.
How do we know when we've truly repented? Our minds are changed. When we think about that certain action or behavior, we don't think about it longingly. We despise it.
There was a time in my life that I was getting drunk daily. But then I had an epiphany - suddenly I realized what I was doing, how sinful it was, what a terrible witness I was being. And so I stopped. Now, when I think of alcohol, I am completely disgusted. That is proof of my repentance - after understanding, I changed my mind, I turned around. Real repentance produces action. In a few verses, we will hear John say,
Matt. 3:8 "...bear fruit in keeping with repentance"
True repentance is shown with action. It starts in the mind and is demonstrated with the life. It's not just about being sorry for your sin. You see, a drunk may often cry on your shoulder and say, "I want to quit." But until he acts on it, it isn't godly sorrow, it's not real repentance.
2Cor. 7:10 For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.
John was preaching repentance. Notice that his preaching was not, "Repent because sin is bad for you and messes up your life." Nor was it, "Repent because it's the right thing to do." No, he preached that the motivation for repentance was because "the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
The Greek there is a verb, saying that the kingdom of heaven is "drawing imminently near." The root of that verb means "to squeeze."
Time is running out, the kingdom of heaven is coming. God is going to judge the world, and we need to make sure that we're ready.
Don't sit around and say, "When my sin gets really bad, I'll stop. When it affects my health or my family life, I'll quit." Instead, realize how evil sin is, and quickly get rid of it, because the kingdom of heaven is tightening its squeeze, it's almost here!
Once again, Matthew points out that the things happening in the New Testament were foretold in the Old Testament. He says that John is the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 40.
Is. 40:3-5 A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed..."
The speech used is painting a picture. You see, unlike today, where Air Force One flies the President to distant lands, and air-conditioned limousines whisk him to his destination, king in ancient times had to travel like everyone else - on land. And so, before a king's journey, the route would be inspected and upgraded. Potholes would be filled in. Mountains would be flattened and valleys would be filled. The path would be made straight.
In the same way, John is preaching that people need to prepare the road of their heart, to make it suitable for the Lord to arrive. That preparation is repentance.
John wouldn't be a successful TV preacher nowadays. But his appearance didn't stop huge crowds from making the trek to hear him preach. This is God's supernatural ordination of a ministry - when there is no earthly reason why a ministry is "successful," but it is anyway. John's location, John's message, and John's appearance should all have guaranteed his failure. But droves of people were going out to him and being baptized.
This baptism they were undergoing was a baptism of repentance. I want you to notice something. To many Christians, baptism is a major source of debate and division. What baptism represents, who can be baptized, and in what manner those people should be baptized. Some churches make you take weeks' worth of classes before being baptized.
And while I agree that we should seek to know the truth about the meaning and manner of various baptisms in the Bible, John didn't suffer from such difficulties. He simply told the people about their sin, and when they understood and desired to change, he submerged them in water as they confessed their sins. This was John's baptism of repentance, plain and simple.
John saw that many of the Pharisees and Sadducees were waiting in line to be baptized. These men who lived their lives as religious hypocrites were going to go through the motions of baptism without first having the heart change of repentance. John would not be a part of it. He told them that they would be judged by God like everyone else if they did not truly repent.
Notice that John was not exalting himself above the Pharisees and Sadducees as he rebuked them. He makes sure to point out that he is merely the road-preparer, that Jesus is the mighty one.
It is very easy for us when we preach to feel self-righteous as we rebuke the obvious sin in other's lives. But we are never free from sin, and must always remember that we aren't even qualified to untie Jesus Christ's shoes.
There has never been a single day in my life that I didn't have sin in my life of which I needed to repent. There are some who claim that they are perfectly right with God, who live their lives without conviction. But they are Pharisees and hypocrites. The Bible tells us,
1John 1:8-10 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us