Preparing the Way for Christ (2): Impediments to Repentance
Intro -- On September 23, 1926, Jack Dempsey, a major character of the Roaring Twenties, and holder of the heavyweight title since 1919, stepped in the ring against Gene Tunney. He counted on his legendary punching power to win against the underdog, Tunney. But Dempsey could never land a good punch and was easily outpointed by the younger, faster, slicker Tunney. He explained his loss to his wife, actress Estelle Taylor, with the famous line, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Dempsey wasn’t ready, and he paid the price. President Reagan used the same line to his wife after being seriously wounded in the attempt on his life in 1981.
Well, neither were the Jews of Jesus day prepared for the Messiah who was about to invade their existence. They thought they were. They had been anticipating Him all of their lives, and the expectations were high that he would deliver them from Roman oppression. But they did not missed the one fundamental truth that was the key to the whole thing. They forgot I Samuel 16:7: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” They failed to understand that Messianic deliverance was first and foremost internal. Before he could rule their nation, he must first rule their heart. Thus, God had arranged a forerunner, John the Baptist, to prepare hearts for the coming of Christ, the Messiah. And what they needed, we need too. So last week we began to look at 6 elements involved in preparing hearts for Christ from Luke 3:1-14.
I. The Mess (1-2a)
Luke mentions six officials in Lu 2:1-2, 4 of whom will later participate in Christ’s death. They represent life without Christ -- and it is not a pretty picture. Mankind is a sinful, broken mess as a result of the Fall, incapable of meeting his own moral standards, let alone those of a holy God. Try to live life without Christ and you will screw it up. I’ve been there, and so have many of you. So we need a Savior. That is step one in preparing for Christ – recognizing the need. We will never accept Him if we do not recognize our lostness without Him.
II. The Messenger (2b)
The messenger is John – “Jehovah is gracious.” What we need to understand here is that God was under no obligation to do anything. God would have remained the same holy, loving, righteous and just being that He is had He left men to die in their sin. But because of His love and mercy and grace, He took action. He sent John – “Jehovah is gracious” – to prepare the way for Christ to invade hard hearts.
III. The Mission (4-6)
John’s mission is to ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, by removing all hurdles to the hearts of the people. It is an awesome task to soften hearts, especially hearts that do not recognize that they are hard. But that is John’s task. He is making straight paths to crooked hearts, preparing the way for Christ. How?
IV. The Message (3, 7-8)
Lu 2:3: “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The key word here is “repentance.” Everything revolves around that. But first, let’s note 3 things. One, baptism was not unknown in the Jewish community where it was used with Gentile converts. The Jews failed miserably to be the blessing to all nations that God intended. But when an occasional Gentile did desire to convert, they had to be circumcised and to be baptized symbolizing their cleansing. So, when John came preaching a baptism of repentance, Jews would have linked it with a need for cleansing by outsiders. To demand that a Jew be baptized was scandalous. It sent a clear message, “You are unclean! You – Jews!” Here is John at the start of a new era addressing Jews as though they were Gentiles – the ultimate insult, but necessary to make straight paths to hard hearts. Not just outsiders, but the people of God are unclean. They often confuse outward compliance with inward clearnsing. If they want to meet Messiah, they must be cleansed.
The second thing we note is it is not the baptism that leads to forgiveness, it is the repentance. The baptism reflected a heart already cleansed -- by repentance. We must never confuse ritual with repentance. Forgiveness of sins comes the same way in every age and every dispensation and every era. It comes by believing God; ritual is always a reflection of faith. Way back in Abraham’s time we are told in Gen 15:6, “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” How are we saved? By faith. How was Abraham saved? By faith. True, the content changes. Abraham did not know Christ’s person or work, so his faith was in something God was going to do that was not crystal clear to him. Our faith is in God’s Word as expressed in the person and work of Christ, but salvation is always by faith.
Third, note John’s baptism was not the same as the New Testament baptism we practice today. It was outwardly identical, but it could not reflect the death and resurrection of Christ for the simple reason that those had not happened yet. We see this in a curious incident in Acts 19. Turn there. Paul comes to Ephesus on his third missionary journey and finds 12 guys who are already believers – but with a twist. Let’s pick up at Lu 2:2, “And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” (So, these guys had been in Palestine sometime during John’s ministry, become believers and were baptized by him – tho probably Gentiles) 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Question: why were these men re-baptized? They were re-baptized because NT baptism, detailed in Romans 6, is about identifying with Christ’s death and resurrection. John’s baptism couldn’t depict what hadn’t happened yet, so Paul re-baptized these 12. Baptism does not save, Beloved, but it is an expected act of obedience to our Lord showing that we freely and truly identify our life with His. Baptism is a wonderful way that Christ has provided for us to say to our world, “I belong to Him. And I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” If you have never followed the Lord in this way as a believer, please consider it.
Now, what is repentance all about? The word μετανοια (metanoia) literally means a change of mind. As used here it describes a change of heart – from a hard, selfish heart, intent on its own passions to a heart that has turned from self toward God. John is preparing the way for Christ. Any relationship with Christ begins in the heart and Christ and sin cannot co-exist. So if Christ is coming, sin has to go. But in our human condition, we put up all kinds of barricades – because, frankly, we like our sin. So I want us to see first 3 impediments to repentance and then 2 indications of true repentance.
A. Impediments to Repentance
1. Outward Confidence
Lu 2:3: Luke tells us that John is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. You say, I don’t see any impediment there. And I grant you it is not spelled out, but Oh, I do see an impediment, Beloved. Why was John preaching repentance? For (literally “into” εις) the forgiveness of sin. Where is the impediment there? It is in the attitude that says, But I don’t need forgiveness. I’m no worse than anyone else. I’m a pretty good person overall. I’ve nothing to repent. I think that’s at least the number 2 if not the number 1 impediment to being ready for Christ. Outward confidence. I don’t need to repent. This attitude reflects an inability to see sin as God sees sin. It does not see sin as bad. It may not even see sin as sin. It puts self first, has no time for God, is convinced that everyone doing their best will be okay – someone who is basically making up their own rules. This attitude pervades our society, and this attitude kills! It kills eternal life.
We’re like the guy driving down the street who sees the flash of a traffic camera. He thinks it must have taken his picture for speeding, but he’s well under the speed limit, so he goes around again, driving even more slowly. The camera flashes once again. Thinking it pretty funny, he drives by again three more times, laughing as the camera snaps away. Two weeks later he gets five tickets in the mail – for driving without a seatbelt! Listen, Beloved. Don’t think you’re safe because you are not guilty of the Big 5 – whatever they are on your list. Don’t think you are safe because you are better than Joe Blow – that you are not a robber or guilty of murder or adultery. The fact is, God’s verdict is already in – delivered in writing in Rom 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” God has looked at our heart. And He has seen the selfishness, covetousness and greed that constitute robbery from God’s perspective. He sees the anger and bitterness and vengeance that constitute murder from God’s perspective. He sees the Lust and lasciviousness and active fantasy life that constitutes adultery from God’s point of view. He has seen every last thing. Most of all He has seen our rejection of Him. We need a changed heart, and our foolish self-confidence and pride keep us from repentance. We confuse outward compliance with inward cleansing. And it excludes Christ.
2. Outward Ceremony
We come now to Lu 2:7: “He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Now, isn’t that an interesting way to start a sermon? “You nest of snakes. Who told you that baptism would keep you out of hell?” John wasn’t exactly seeker-sensitive, was he? In fact, he seems downright hostile – certainly not very loving. So how do we interpret this statement?
The Israel that John came to was spiritually bankrupt, temporally focused with spiritually dead hearts. They were no more ready to receive Messiah as sin-bearer than were the dead bones of Ezekiel 37. In fact, they were the dead bones of Ezekiel 37. Their hearts were stone cold, dead to God. They needed to repent as their part in a spiritual re-birth. God was doing His atoning part for their salvation by sending Jesus. It remained to be seen whether they would repent of their sin and be baptized as an outward evidence of a changed heart. The good news was that great crowds were coming to hear John.
The excitement attracted the interest to the religious leaders, so it was not long before they arrived on the scene to check things out. Actually, it was specifically to them that John addressed his seemingly harsh comments. That is what we are told in a parallel passage in Matt 3:7, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Why was John so hard on them? Because he recognized immediately the hypocrisy of their presence – and he called a spade a spade.
John knew all about the desert snakes that lived beneath the brushwood and in crannies of the rocks of the desolate wilderness. He knew that one spark could set a fire that caused those snakes to go scurrying in terror toward the Jordan River to escape the terrorizing flames. And when he looked into the faces of those Pharisees and Sadducees, he saw the face of hypocrisy. He saw people who were counting on keeping the Sabbath, celebrating the annual feasts, offering formal prayers, giving alms, fasting on Mondays and Thursdays to save them. It meant nothing in their hearts. They did it for show to be thought righteous by others, while in their hearts they were cheating in every possible as Jesus later pointed out. They didn’t love the law as did David. They hated what they had made of it – but it was their ticket to heaven. They were just going through the motions. Now it appeared that there might be a new motion to go through – John’s baptism – so here they were, not in the least interested in the heart of the message, repentance, but greatly concerned to get the ceremony right. John saw right through to their rotten hearts. He saw snakes scrambling to escape judgment by ceremony.
In fact, he shared the view of God who detests mere outward, ritualistic, hypocritical religion. In Isa 29:13 God said of Israel, “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” Religion produces people who say all the right things for all the wrong reasons, but give no thought to God the rest of the time because their hearts are far from Him. Yet that is the only thing that actually counts. God detests ritual without relationship. Think not? Look at Amos 5:21-22, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22) Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.” Why did God hate His own feasts? Because He did not have their hearts. Just going through the motions will never cut it with God.
Bruce Larson says this crowd reminded him of an army buddy in Vietnam who wore three different medals strung around his neck—a Protestant cross, a Catholic saint’s medal, and a Jewish star of David. Asked about them, he would say, “I’m taking no chances.” Well, that was the strategy of the Pharisees. They were taking no chances. John says they’re like snakes headed for the river. Thomas Carlyle said of the poet Samuel Coleridge, “He has a look of anxious impudence in his eyes.” That’s what John saw in these men, a look of anxious impudence. They came to hear and be baptized, but they had no intention of repenting. But ceremony or ritual or religious trappings will never prepare for Christ; He comes to sinners who know they need a Savior. Ritual without relationship is reprehensible. You can be outwardly in and still be inwardly out. Do you see? It’s all about your heart.
3. Outward Connection
Lu 2:8: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” Know what that means? It means you can’t ride Mommy and Daddy’s coattails into heaven. Salvation isn’t passed on by osmosis. Neither can it be inherited. The decision to repent has to be yours alone. It is not a matter of outward connection. The Jews were horribly confused about this. They thought because they were Jews and were circumcised, they were in. They were taught and believed that Abraham sat at the gates of hell and would not permit a circumcised Jew to enter. They had a little saying: “A single Jew is worth more in God’s sight than all the nations of the world.” They thought Israel had a most favored nation status with God. With that kind of confidence in your outward connections, it’s pretty hard to get excited about repentance, isn’t it? Pride keeps so many people from the kingdom.
John is reminding them of a most critical truth about salvation – it is a matter of individual decision. It can’t be inherited, and it can’t be done on someone else’s behalf. We’re not saved because we were born in America, any more than the Jews were by being Jews. We don’t get it because your parents belonged to the church any more than these people were saved by having Abraham as their father. Baptism doesn’t save us any more than circumcision saved the Jews. That was their parents’ decision, not theirs. That’s why Jeremiah says in 4:4, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.” Until God had their hearts, they were subject to judgment. Do you see? Outward ritual and the outward connection does not prepare the way for Christ – not then, and not now. Church membership or hanging with the right people – great connections, but they don’t save. Christ comes to a repentant heart. That’s the only way. Don’t ever confuse connection with repentance. Let Godly connection lead you to repentance. Don’t be outwardly in, but inwardly out!
B. Indications of Repentance
There are two: Changed mind. The word literally means “to change one’s mind.” It depicts turning from one direction – sin and self – toward God by agreeing with His assessment that I am a sinner. Changed life – Look at the first phrase of Lu 2:8: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” We’ll examine this is more detail next week, but John’s point is really simple. True repentance leads to a changed life.
J. Vernon McGee tells of a man he met when he first went to Pasadena, California, as a pastor in 1940. His wife wanted McGee to visit him in his home because he was sick and dying. He presented the gospel and the man listened politely. Then he said, “I would say, ‘Yes, I will accept Christ as my Savior’—in fact, I am going to do it. But I want to tell you this: I have played and trifled with God all my life. I have been down to an altar twenty–five times. I have made promises to Him and then turned from Him, and I have never been sincere. Honestly, I cannot tell you right now whether I am sincere or not.” McGee finishes by saying, “All I could do at his funeral as I looked down at him was to say under my breath, “Oh, God, I hope he was sincere. I hope he really meant it. I hope Your grace reached down and touched him.” Beloved you can put Christ off too long. You can trifle with God for too long. The day came when God said to Israel, “I will no longer have mercy on you.” Listen, have you made way for Christ. Have you repented, or are you actually trusting in some outward confidence or ceremony or connection. Let’s give Jesus the last word. He said, “I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” I urge you this morning – lay aside your confidence in a sinful self, your ceremonies and your connections. Don’t confuse outward compliance with inward cleansing. Give Him your heart. Let’s pray.