A commercialized, materialistic Christmas disappoints us every year. We spend money we don’t have on gifts that our children don’t need and we end up raising unhappy and selfish adults who don’t appreciate the greatest Christmas gift of all. What we really need, we don’t want to hear. What we really need in preparation for Christ’s coming is repentance.
Let’s understand that John the Baptist did not tell people to go on shopping sprees in preparation for Jesus, but to repent.
Let’s look at Matthew 3:1-12 and the idea of repentance as preparation for Christ.
Matthew 3:1 In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, 2 “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” 3 The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said, “He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him!’”
4 John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. 5 People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. 6 And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? 8 Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. 9 Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. 10 Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Preaching & teaching (vs. 1)
John the Baptist, then Jesus and his disciples preached or announced that the kingdom was near (Matthew 3:1-2; 4:17). Preaching and teaching are VERY important to the life of the church. Preaching is a public announcement to unbelievers. Teaching is instructing believers to obey what Jesus commanded. That's what Jesus instructed his disciples to teach (Matthew 28:19-20).
Something is Wrong (vs. 2)
John called for repentance, signalling that something was wrong. Is there something wrong with our modern world? Repentance is a change of heart about our life’s direction with hope for a new beginning and a new world. John wanted to see proof of repentance, fruit. The root cause of all our planet’s ills is spiritual and so is the solution.
Is repentance just a one time thing? Repent is written here in the sense of keep on repenting. Christian life is continual repentance. Conversion is merely the beginning of a process of change. Our journey begins with small changes. The idea that we do not have perfect knowledge and the humility to learn new perspectives are indicative of ongoing repentance.
John’s the Baptist had a sense of urgency, the “kingdom of heaven is near.” In military terms, God was establishing a beachhead and would eventually take over. God’s kingdom is God’s rule. He rules in the lives of those who accept him. The “kingdom of heaven has come near” is the equivalent of saying that God is now taking control.1
1 The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary of the New Testament, R. T. France, 2007, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, p. 102
Preacher in poor country clothes (vs. 4)
John was a wilderness preacher dressed in farmer’s clothes, challenging the establishment with a new approach to sin. He emphasized the oft overlooked ingredient of repentance, a change of heart. After confession of sin, John ignored Levitical sin offerings, emphasizing baptism. His baptism of repentance prepared for a new high priest who would also baptize people with the Holy Spirit.
The announcer (vs. 5)
John heralded one of the most important announcements of all history. It was made in the wilderness at the edge of Roman imperial control. This last of the Old Testament prophets was dressed in simple farming clothing reminiscent of Elijah. Israel crossed the Jordan to become God’s people in this wilderness. It was a fitting place to announce a revival.
Truth or Comfort (vs. 7)
Words of comfort have their place, but John the Baptist preached a discomforting call to repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:1-12). He called some religious leaders a brood of snakes, warning them to produce proof of a changed heart. In a selfish and corrupt world do we all need a confrontation with the truth?
Social gospel & works salvation (vs. 8)
Social gospel is a modern phrase, not a quote from scripture. The concept of a social responsibility towards others is merely loving our neighbor. The bottom line is that a social responsibility towards others is clearly evident among those who believe. John the Baptist told the Pharisees to show fruit of a changed heart. One such fruit is how we treat others.
Baptism of Fire (vs. 11)
The baptism of fire was pictured by tongues of fire resting on each of the faithful at Pentecost (Acts 2), similar to that mode of water baptism placing water on the head. Baptism with fire has a double-meaning. The unrepentant who choose hell over heaven will also be thrown into a lake of fire, a mode even Baptists might approve.
God with us, Immanuel, was born as a helpless baby. Why? We human beings tend to focus on power that we can see. Yet, like the still, small voice that Elijah experienced, the power of God is often unseen. It is in the good news that Jesus brought. Perhaps if we truly hear that message we may find unimaginable power.
The tongues of fire resting on people’s heads at Pentecost (Acts 2) is described by some as a baptism of fire. Some churches baptize with water on the head symbolic of this and a washing rather than being overly literal. Baptism can be an immersion experience like trials by fire and the unrepentant cast into a lake of fire.
Disappointment in Jesus (vs. 12)
John was disappointed in Jesus. Even the disciples were disappointed that Jesus came to die for the world rather than conquer the world. Perhaps what the world really needs is not in a king like this world’s, but one who rules in the hearts of people and produces a fire that creates permanent change in us from the inside out.
Should we preach smooth things, or is there a better way? Is a revival of that message of repentance needed, that bitter pill which we really need for the healing of our world today? Is repentance the BEST preparation for the coming of the Christ?